x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Red Bull on full charge for Abu Dhabi Grand Prix duel

A two-time winner at Yas Marina, Vettel's dominance has left rivals hoping for some technical help. Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

German Sebastian Vettel was the man in demand among Formula One fans at the Yas Marina Circuit where he has won two races in three appearances for Red Bull Racing.
German Sebastian Vettel was the man in demand among Formula One fans at the Yas Marina Circuit where he has won two races in three appearances for Red Bull Racing.

The drivers wore shorts and smiles, the team principals wore polo shirts and professional countenances.

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend officially got under way yesterday, but the relaxed atmosphere evident at Yas Marina Circuit belied the seriousness of what the next three days mean to those involved in the travelling circus that is Formula One.

A trio of races remain and, from the driver on pole position to the slowest backmarker, everything is still to fight for.

Sebastian Vettel, as ever, is the man in most demand. Arriving in Abu Dhabi on the back of four consecutive grand prix victories, the German is looking to edge closer to a third consecutive world championship title.

He leads the championship, has triumphed twice here in three years and such was the swollen mass awaiting the 25 year old when he turned out to speak to reporters in the paddock, he joked somebody must be "giving things away for free".

No such luck for Vettel. As several of the sport's pay drivers will attest, free rides do not exist in F1 and Fernando Alonso, the man second in the championship standings, 13 points behind Red Bull's reigning champion, has every intention of pushing his rival to breaking point.

"We know Red Bull sometimes is a little bit more fragile - we saw in the last race," Alonso said.

"So we need to push them, we need to be at the limit all the race through."

In India last week, Vettel's teammate Mark Webber suffered a failed Kers, the power-enhancing acceleration system, and Alonso was able to pass him to claim second.

Vettel finished the race 9.4 seconds ahead and Ferrari's two-time world champion knows if he is to capitalise on any issues with his rival's car, he needs to ensure his team closes the performance gap as much as possible.

"If the Kers fails in Vettel's car then nobody notices because he is 10 seconds in front," Alonso said.

"We cannot do another race with them 10 seconds in front, we need to be right there.

"There are some new parts coming, which we will have to check [today] in practice, but we don't expect - just five days after India - that we will have closed the gap completely and be competing with them with the same performance.

"There is not any magic button or magic part in F1."

Vettel has appeared untouchable of late, leading every lap of the past three races, but memories of last season's race here remain vivid in his mind.

In 2011 - having already claimed the title the previous month - his race ended prematurely after a first-lap puncture.

Naturally, Vettel is remaining cautious.

"If you just look back, India was a great race for us, but a couple of laps before the end we had some sparks," he said, referring to his car's floor scraping the asphalt. "It doesn't take much to imagine something like this could come up and it shows you how vulnerable you are no matter what position you are in.

"Whether you lead by a big gap or just in midfield fighting for position, it doesn't take much for suddenly your race to end and you're not scoring the points you were hoping for.

"Then the whole picture looks different again."

This weekend, many of those in the midfield and further back on the grid are fighting for more than position, they are battling to remain in the sport.

Eleven drivers from 24 are yet to confirm where - and if - they will be racing in F1 next season and drivers such as Charles Pic, Bruno Senna and Kamui Kobayashi are looking to use the next three races as vehicles to prove their worth.

"We have to work hard to get next year's seat," Kobayashi, the Japanese driver with Sauber, said.

"I'm pretty confident to deserve a Formula One seat, but for sure we definitely need to focus for these last three races. Let's see.

"We don't have so many seats [available] either, so this is also a big question. I try to focus on the results and also negotiate with other teams or the same team."

Pic, the French rookie with Marussia, has impressed at times this season, but with his marque struggling financially, he said he is exploring options.

"I try to be focused on my job and for the moment, my job is to give my best for the three last races," he said.

"After, we will see what's open for next year. We are speaking with some teams, but I think it's too early to say anything."

A source close to Marussia told The National that Max Chilton, the British GP2 driver, has already signed on for next season, although did not say whether he would replace Pic or teammate Timo Glock.

Chilton, when asked, said no deal is yet done, although he added his management are working on securing the seat.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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