Hamilton benefits in Abu Dhabi
Lewis Hamilton took a much-needed victory in the third Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after world champion Sebastian Vettel posted a rare DNF.
Lewis Hamilton reclaimed the top step of the F1 podium in style as he took full advantage of a rare retirement for Sebastian Vettel to win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The Briton started alongside the world champion after missing out on pole position in qualifying and had slotted in behind the fleeing German when a right rear puncture sent the Red Bull pirouetting off the circuit at turn two.
It appears that putting the wheel over the far edge of the kerb was to blame for the deflation, but needing to drive the entire circuit before returning to the pits effectively ended Vettel's race as the flailing rubber damaged the rear of the RB7 beyond repair. Remarkably, it was Vettel's first DNF of the season, his first since Korea last year, and only the second for Red Bull as a team in 2011 following Mark Webber's self-induced exit at Monza, but it opened the door for a different face out front.
Hamilton needed no second bidding to seize the initiative, pulling an immediate gap over his pursuers, who spent the opening lap squabbling amongst themselves. The other McLaren of Jenson Button had initially held third, but was quickly passed for what became second by a fast-starting Fernando Alonso, who had already dispensed with Mark Webber. Felipe Massa slotted into fourth, ahead of the two Mercedes, who uncomfortably close - for the second year in succession - on the run to the first chicane.
Once the DRS systems were activated, Button - with Alonso out of reach - also came under pressure from Webber, but the double zone, situated so close together on Yas Marina's two longest straights, allowed the Briton to come straight back at his rival. Although Button then appeared to pull out of Webber's reach, the pair were back together for a second bite eight laps later, with wheels banging before Webber clobbered the inside kerb and ran wide, allowing Button to reclaim third once more. The Briton, however, was wounded, and any thought of launching a mid-race push to catch the leaders largely evaporated along with his McLaren's KERS.
If Webber had any thought of capitalising, however, that disappeared at the first round of pit-stops. Massa began the rush for tyres on lap 15th, with the top three coming in next time around. Webber ran another lap longer, but a sticky right rear cost him nearly six seconds to those around him and dropped the Australian behind Massa.
Approaching mid-distance, Hamilton held a 3.6secs advantage over Alonso, who was hanging with the McLaren despite not being able to show anything like comparable pace through practice and qualifying. The Spaniard was, in turn, comfortably ahead of Button, with Massa able to run ahead of Webber, Nico Rosberg, Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta who, unlike the majority, started on the harder prime tyre and made it last through to lap 27, having kept his slower machine ahead of faster rivals for much of the opening period.
Further back, Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez were hovering just outside the top ten despite having made early stops to rid themselves of the medium compound, while Heikki Kovalainen had his Lotus up into the top 15, just ahead of the recovering Williams duo who had been forced to start from the very back after engine and penalty woes respectively.
Webber was unable to make DRS work for him when he caught Massa either, and the Red Bull team opted to try an alternative strategy, fitting another set of softs to the Australian's car when he made his second stop. The trade-off for better pace, however, was the need to make a third stop late in the race to complete the mandatory run on both supplied compounds.
Button, whose KERS 'failure' was intermittent and forced the Briton not only to reset the system, but also to play braking roulette without knowing whether he'd have the extra assistance that KERS usually provides. His second stop fitted the expected primes, but dropped the Briton behind Rosberg's Mercedes, while Massa ran ahead of the German as he searched for his first top four finish of the year.
At the same time, however, Alonso's refusal to give up on his chase of Hamilton added extra intrigue to the battle at the front as the gap between the top two closed to jut over a second as the leader pitted for the final time. Alonso now needed to push harder still if he was to move ahead and claim an unlikely victory but, despite relentless effort, his chances of emerging ahead of the McLaren was hampered by finding an HRT heading for the pits immediately ahead of him. A slightly slower than usual stop also added to Alonso's woe, and Hamilton was comfortably back in front by the time both were back on track.
Red Bull's tactical switch for Webber also required the Australian to bang in qualifying style laps, and he responded, racking up a series of fastest times as he homed in on Button. The difference in the tyre performance was evident as he caught and passed the McLaren for fourth, but time was running out for Webber to stop again and rejoin ahead of his rival.
While Hamilton continued to reign supreme out front, holding Alonso's continued challenge at arm's length, Massa's chances of recording his best finish of the season ended when the Brazilian lost his car with a handful of laps to run. Although Yas Marina's expansive run-off areas meant that he did not hit anything, the Ferrari dropped away from Webber, giving the Australian a cushion to at least hold on to fourth at the end.
Red Bull finally made the call with a lap to run, limiting the time the RB7 would have to run on the less favourable prime as much as possible but, as expected, there wasn't enough in hand to prevent Button from claiming the final podium position. That result was enough for the Briton to ensure he finished ahead of Hamilton in the championship, regardless of what his team-mate did on the day, but Button is not yet safe as runner-up to Vettel with one race to run.
Hamilton eventually crossed the line eight seconds ahead of Alonso, punching the air with delight and dedicating the victory - his first since dominating at the Nurburgring in July - to his mother, who was in the crowd of happy McLaren mechanics when he returned to the pit-lane. The Briton's demeanour was clearly different to that of the past couple of races, and it is to be hoped that he can now move on from the demons that have plagued his past few months.
Alonso and Webber remain in the hunt for second overall, despite none of those giving vain chase to Vettel admitting to wanting the position, going to Interlagos ten and 22 points behind Button respectively after finishing second and fourth in the race, while Massa came home ahead of Rosberg, the German having dropped back at his final stop.
Mercedes team-mate Michael Schumacher also added to his points tally despite suffering a puncture in the closing stages and having to park up immediately after taking the flag. The seven-time champion admitted that he had not forced the issue with Rosberg on the opening lap as the younger German was on the better tyre, but was unable to hang onto his tail thereafter.
Force India's decision to run different tyre strategies for Sutil and di Resta paid off with a double points finish, moving the team a little further ahead of both Sauber and Toro Rosso. Kamui Kobayashi's single point for tenth place also broke the tie that existed between the Swiss and Italian outfits before the race. STR's Sebastien Buemi was among the race's four retirements, joining Vettel, Virgin's Jerome d'Ambrosio and HRT's Daniel Ricciardo, while Jaime Alguersuari managed only 15th, coming home four places behind the second Sauber of Perez.
There were issues with drivers ignoring blue flags, which hampered both Hamilton and Alonso, as well as Webber, at different times, and Pastor Maldonado and Bruno Senna were both penalised, finishing 14th and 16th as a result. Rubens Barrichello, meanwhile, climbed from 23rd to twelfth to end a frustrating weekend on something of a positive note.