Chasing greatness. Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
The Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has taken on extra significance for fierce rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel as each driver attempts to secure his legacy. When it was announced in early 2007 that Abu Dhabi had won the rights to host a Grand Prix, few would have predicted that the race would take on such significance or that two Formula One rookies would go on to dominate the sport for the next decade. At that time, both Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel were taking their first tentative steps into the sport and there was little indication that the UAE capital would consistently stage the closing race of the season.
Yet, just two years later, Vettel would storm to victory in the final race of the 2009 season and the very first Grand Prix to be held in Abu Dhabi. The German driver was concluding his debut season with Red Bull Racing and his triumph at Yas Marina Circuit saw him finish second in the Driver’s Championship – an astonishing effort from the then 22-year-old. This impressive victory on Yas Island was a sign of things to come as Vettel dominated for the next four years. It was also the start of a love affair with Abu Dhabi as he secured two wins and a podium finish in the following four seasons, the most memorable of which was his triumph in 2010. Once again it was the final race of the season, but this time there was a chance to be crowned world champion.
Despite heading into the race trailing championship leader Fernando Alonso by 15 points, Vettel qualified in pole position and charged to victory, beating the Spaniard and claiming his maiden world title in the process. It was an astonishing end to a dramatic season and perfectly demonstrated why Abu Dhabi was so keen to host the season-ending Grand Prix. For Vettel and Red Bull Racing, the celebrations ran long into the night. But for Hamilton, who finished the race in second and saw his record as F1’s youngest-ever world champion eclipsed by the German driver, it was the beginning of a long-running duel with Vettel. In the years to come the rivalry would intensify and Yas Marina Circuit would so often prove to be a crucial battleground as both drivers looked to win more world titles.
The following season Hamilton claimed his first victory in Abu Dhabi in the penultimate race of the season, but it mattered little with Vettel winning 11 races that year and wrapping up the Drivers Championship with four Grand Prix races remaining. In 2012 and 2013, there was further triumph from the unstoppable German driver as he became a quadruple world champion. Red Bull Racing took the chance to celebrate this remarkable feat in the UAE, with former F1 driver David Coulthard performing doughnuts on the helipad of the famed Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel.
Just one year later the fortunes of Vettel drastically changed as he arrived in the emirate without a win to his name and with any hopes of a fifth championship long since extinguished. However, having made history by hosting the first ever day-to-night race in 2009, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix would again deliver a Formula One first as double points were on offer in the final race of the season. This ensured that the tussle for the title would go down to the wire and once again a champion would be crowned at Yas Marina Circuit. But after years of success in the UAE capital, there wasn’t much Vettel could do with an eighth-place finishing having little impact as Hamilton produced a flawless drive to claim victory and earn a second world title.
While the experiment of double points lasted just one season, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix would remain the final race on the F1 calendar for the next four years. And with Vettel confirming a move to the legendary Scuderia Ferrari team, it seemed inevitable that the season-ending race in the emirate would see more title battles between the fierce rivals. Yet the clash many predicted has failed to materialise. In the past three years Vettel has arrived in Abu Dhabi with little to fight for and has been unable to add to his tally of victories in the capital, finishing in fourth place and third on two occasions. In comparison, Hamilton has had numerous reasons to celebrate.
The Briton would win a third world title in 2015, ending the season with another impressive showing on Yas Island as he finished in second place. The following year he would round off his campaign with a third triumph in Abu Dhabi as he led the race from start to finish, showcasing his mastery of the challenging track. And then one year later, he returned with a fourth Drivers’ Championship already secured, despite the best efforts of Vettel who had to settle for second place in the final standings. Hamilton would take few risks as he cruised to second place, maintaining his impressive record in the UAE capital.
At the start of the current season and after a decade of domination from Hamilton and Vettel, with Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg the only other title winners in this time, the record book had them down as equals with four championships apiece. And as the season progressed, there was little to separate the two adversaries at the top of the standings. After 13 races, Vettel had won on four occasions and was just 17 points behind Hamilton, who had five victories to his name. The race for a fifth title and an opportunity to define their legacies appeared to be hotting up.
Yet just five races later, Hamilton has a near unassailable lead thanks to four straight victories and a third-place finish at the US Grand Prix. The Briton (at the time of press) needs just five points from the remaining three races to win his fifth world championships, a feat that would see him draw level with the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio and second only to the great Michael Schumacher with seven titles.
All that is left for Vettel this season is the chance to end on a positive note when the 10th edition of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix takes place on November 25. Once a happy hunting ground for the German, it has been five years since he topped the podium and he will be desperate to reaffirm his dominance at Yas Marina Circuit. For while he may have lost the battle, the war with Hamilton is set to continue for many years to come. Both drivers have contracts with their current teams running until the end of 2020 and it would come of little surprise should Hamilton and Vettel continue to race beyond their current deals. Whatever happens in the coming years, however, one thing is certain; the rivalry will continue. And should Ferrari improve their car, then Abu Dhabi could be set for another title showdown.