x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Vettel penalty changes race dynamics for Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Hamilton put in a mighty performance as the championship leader is demoted and Alonso puts on brave face - Graham Caygill looks at the ups and downs in Abu Dhabi so far

McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, left, will start at the front of the grid, while Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel will start from the back.
McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, left, will start at the front of the grid, while Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel will start from the back.

Damage limitation

Sebastian Vettel's penalty, putting him at the back of the grid, leaves him with him a mountain to climb today and realistically no chance of a podium finish.

But what can he do from 24th place? The six immediately in front of him, the Caterhams, Marussias and HRTs will not be an issue, but getting past the midfield cars will.

In Vettel's favour is the fact the Red Bull Racing car is the second quickest package at the track, behind the Lewis Hamilton and McLaren-Mercedes combination, and it has a speed advantage over much of the field.

The issue is overtaking. DRS (the drag reduction system) makes overtaking possible, but it is still not easy and Vettel is going to have to use all of his race craft to make progress quickly, while being careful, as he cannot afford to make a mistake and risk a collision.

A good pit strategy will be key too and you can be sure Red Bull will look to do something different to move up the order and jump some of the middle-of-the-field cars.

A points finish is possible for Vettel, given his pace, but it will have to be a Herculean effort for his 13-point lead over Fernando Alonso not to be reduced, and it will be about minimising his rival's gain. Given Hamilton, when put in the same situation in Barcelona in May when McLaren committed the same fuel-related transgression, finished eighth, something similar is achievable for Vettel.

Stealing the show

All the attention on the build-up to today's race was on the Vettel- Alonso title fight, but both were upstaged yesterday by a mighty performance by Hamilton, who claimed pole position.

It should not have been a surprise.

The Briton, who has only a mathematical chance of the title, is superb around Yas Marina Circuit, taking pole position in 2009, pushing Vettel harder than he had any right to in a slower car in 2010 and then winning last year.

Now can he transform it into the race? He and McLaren-Mercedes were not happy on Friday with their pace on the Option tyre.

But having worked on his technique to warm up the tyres yesterday in final practice there was no issue come qualifying and he will hope that is the same today.

The McLaren has been very fast on the medium tyre and if Hamilton is leading Red Bull's Mark Webber, his most likely threat, after the one probable pit stop it will have to take a mechanical problem to stop a second successive win at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Opportunity knocks

Alonso had put a brave face on his qualifying woe after finishing only seventh, but the penalty for Vettel has changed the complexion of his race.

The Ferrari driver's one lap pace has been poor here, but that was no real surprise considering you have to go back to June and the Canadian Grand Prix for the last time he finished in the top three in qualifying in dry conditions.

He does go better on Sundays traditionally, with the pace of the Ferrari over a race distance much more impressive, and will hope that is the case again today.

His mission from sixth will be to make up places very quickly to ensure he does not lose ground to Hamilton and Webber.

If he can get close to them and stay within touch he has a chance to fight for the win.

That might be beyond him today given how well Hamilton is driving here, but a podium finish is a genuine prospect, and Alonso really must seize his chance of making a serious in-road into Vettel's advantage, with his rival at the back of the grid.

Raikkonen's threat

The pattern with Kimi Raikkonen this season is bad day Saturday, good day Sunday.

But for once the Finn had a strong qualifying, with a superb final sector, leapfrogging his Lotus car over Jenson Button and Alonso to take fourth place on the grid before he was later promoted to fourth .

Yas Marina has not proven too tough on tyres, so one of Lotus's advantages, given their usual kindness to their rubber, has gone, but Raikkonen has his car really hooked up here.

He was fast in India but could not get past Felipe Massa's Ferrari.

If Raikkonen can clear Pastor Maldonado early in the race, he will have the chance to see if he can hang with Hamilton and the Red Bulls.

The title is realistically gone for the Finn, but he has an outside hope today of a first win in three years.

Track easy on tyres

As revealed by Paul Hembery, Pirelli's motorsport director, on Friday, the smoothness of the Yas Marina Circuit allows for a one-stop race strategy, and it is expected the majority of drivers will do just that.

Normally, a big gap in time difference rises between the option (soft) and prime (hard) tyres, but the difference is small here - between three-10ths to half a second - plus the tyre wear is low.

The top 10 all qualified on the soft tyre and are committed to go with that compound to start the 55-lap race. They will look to go reasonably far into the race before swapping to the hard rubber.

Given their pace on the prime in practice, McLaren may be keen to make the stop early, but they will not risk getting stuck in slower traffic and will want at least a 25-second gap over the midfield runners.

Expect the stops to begin around the 20th lap, with those below the top 10 who start on the hard tyres running longer into the race.

gcaygill@thenational.ae