As the sun set on another dramatic Formula One season in Abu Dhabi, it was perhaps fitting that the driver who has stood apart from all others once again stood atop the podium.
Lewis Hamilton has proven supreme this season in winning a fifth world drivers’ title, and just because the job was done didn’t mean that he wasn’t going to end the season in style.
Having maintained the lead from pole, Mercedes gambled on an early stop after a frightening crash involving Nico Hulkenberg followed by Kimi Raikkonen’s retirement brought about two early Virtual Safety Car periods. It dropped Hamilton back to fifth and seemed for a while as if the tactic may have backfired. But as the race unfolded and the other leading protagonists made their later stops for fresh rubber, Hamilton was left back in his customary spot and took the chequered flag from arch-rival Sebastian Vettel and the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo.
It was the incredible Englishman’s 73rd career victory, 11th of a dominant season and a record fourth at Abu Dhabi.
“I am so happy right now,” said a jubilant Hamilton, standing alongside Vettel after the race. “Thank you, guys, so much for the support this year. “It has been a real honour and privilege racing against Sebastian this year. I have known him since Formula 3 days and he’s always been an honest, hard working racing driver and he’s always raced his heart out, so he’s done a fantastic job all season.
“There’s so much pressure on us all so don’t ever look at our shortcomings as anything less than us giving our best and Sebastian did. I know next year he’s going to come back strong so I’m going to have to make sure I come back with it but I’m really grateful for the good times.”
In the battle for the midfield constructors’ placings, Sergio Perez’s eighth place finish ensured that Force India finished ahead of rivals Sauber in the constructors’ standings despite Esteban Ocon’s unfortunate late retirement from tenth.
And the retiring Fernando Alonso brought down the curtain on his distinguished F1 career by once again dragging his uncompetitive McLaren just out of the points in eleventh.
It was a dramatic start. As Hamilton led the field away from his pole spot, viewers worldwide held their breath as Hulkenberg was involved in a quite alarming accident, the Renault tipped into a roll by Grosjean into Turn 9 before ending up on it’s roof by the barrier.
A frightening few minutes followed, Hulkenberg reporting, “I’m hanging here like a Cow. There’s a fire!” The marshals were quick to the scene to extinguish any flame before righting the car and extracting the driver. For all the benefits of the Halo device, there is perhaps an Achilles heel in a situation like this, making it difficult for the driver to escape unassisted.
As the safety car pulled in and racing resumed, the big loser was Verstappen. Starting on the grippiest but most fragile rubber, but it didn’t help him off the line, the Dutchman dropping alarmingly back down the field. A battle royale with Brazilian GP rival Ocon ensued, the two trading position and even touching in their battle for ninth.
Up at the sharp end of things, Hamilton was putting the hammer down, extending his big advantage as Kimi Raikkonen ground to a halt by the pit wall, bringing and end to his Ferrari career in highly disappointing fashion.
Hamilton took the opportunity to pit under the Virtual Safety Car to switch to the super-soft tyres, re-joining in fifth but with rubber to take him to the end of the race. It seemed a puzzling tactic to give up track position, the world champion sitting in traffic and his tyres wearing whilst making no impact on the field in front.
Vettel was the next of the big hitters to stop on lap 16, a slower stop putting him out behind Bottas when the Mercedes pitted a lap later. Red Bull, whose chassis seems to be one of the best in the business at managing the Pirelli tyre degradation, opted to run long with Ricciardo, the Australian staying out on his ultra-softs until lap 34. It dropped him to fifth behind his teammate and set up a dramatic finish.
Vettel made his move on Bottas stick with 20 laps remaining before setting off in pursuit of Hamilton, only a dozen seconds separating the top five drivers. Verstappen forced his way Bottas with a brilliant move into Turn 11, the two touching wheels, before the Finn lost a further place to Ricciardo.
And what of the departing drivers? Marcus Ericsson’s race ended in technical failure on lap 26, Ocon dropped from the points late on and Sergey Sirotkin was the last of the finishers. He has been a credit to the Williams team after a difficult season.
But the last word must surely go to the great Alonso. Driving a McLaren car for the last time that has by no means proven worthy of his talent, the Spaniard almost hauled his machine into the points.
“As long as I’m not commentating like some of the ex-Formula One drivers, it’s going to be okay,” joked Alonso when asked if he would stay around F1 by David Coulthard. “It has been a pleasure racing with these champions (Hamilton and Vettel) and I feel very privileged. Thanks for everything, thanks Formula One. I will always be a fan of this show.”
The sport will be worse off without him, but the show must go on and 2019 promises to be an absolute cracker.