Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

A recipe for the perfect championship showdown // Abu Dhabi provided an epic end to the 2016 season

Published by Anna Duxbury

Abu Dhabi provided an epic end to the 2016 season
Credit: Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix

For me, Abu Dhabi had all the ingredients a season finale needed. I was fizzing with excitement long before the lights went out and I’ve not really got down from that post-championship high since. Especially since (with one notable exception) everyone seemed to have such a happy end to the year. Watching the pure unadulterated joy and relief of Nico Rosberg and family, and indeed the whole of Mercedes, was enough to put a smile on my face 3000 miles away.

Jenson Button declared himself to be ‘the happiest man on the planet’ after his final Grand Prix, although the new World Champion might disagree with him. Sebastian Vettel was in high spirits after finishing the season back on the podium and the whole paddock seemed to be in an end of term mindset, surrounded by celebrations and leaving parties. All the vital elements of a perfect final race were there in Abu Dhabi.

An underdog victorious at last...

And who doesn’t love an underdog? A very worthy champion who did everything needed to relieve Lewis Hamilton of his crown. Rosberg has endured defeat by Hamilton day in day out for most of his life but he never stopped fighting. And surely Sunday’s result made it all worthwhile. His relief at hanging on to that vital podium position until the chequered flag was palpable; post race interviews revealed a fervently animated Rosberg the public hasn’t seen before.

It was a tremendous difference to the guarded responses that the media had grown used to over the last twelve months. The ‘one race at a time’ mantra he had clung to all year had finally gone, having served its purpose in providing the mental strength to withstand the unbelievable pressures on Sunday. Which brings us on to...

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A dash of controversy...

Everything about this championship has been shrewdness over speed. The intelligent, focused German versus the partying, incredibly quick Brit. But in Abu Dhabi Hamilton’s only chance was to play games and manipulate other drivers into beating Rosberg for him. His painfully slow driving allowed Vettel and Max Verstappen close enough to threaten Rosberg. It left the paddock divided as to whether Hamilton had an obligation to obey his team and speed up or the right to suit himself with a championship at stake.

Toto Wolff seemed inclined to laugh the incident off but others saw it as Hamilton directly disobeying his team and a far less classy approach than simply driving off into the distance. His less than gracious suggestion that the best man had not prevailed also prompted discussion that he lacks respect for his World Champion teammate.

All this year’s major stars playing a part...

The lead up to the race was filled with speculation over how Verstappen could influence the championship outcome. Rosberg himself admitted being very nervous of the young Dutchman and many in Mercedes breathed a sigh of relief at Verstappen’s first lap spin. The teenager spectacularly climbed back up the field with a remarkable one stop strategy but in the final laps his tyres were too exhausted to allow him to truly pressure Rosberg.

Instead the dark horse of Vettel looked in contention for the win after a late second pit stop. Although that didn’t materialise he clearly increased Rosberg’s heart rate in the final nail-biting laps. After starring so heavily in the narrative of the season it was only fitting that these two helped to take the championship down to the wire.

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After 1213 laps it all went down to the last corner...

When Rosberg won the first four races of 2016 it looked like the championship would be in the bag before the mid season break. But Hamilton’s sensational comeback, and his subsequent unexpected drop in form in the early autumn, meant that the title was pretty open until the end. Hamilton ensured that hearts were in mouths right until they crossed the line as the pressure kept building for Rosberg. After Hamilton secured the 2015 championship with three races to spare, 2016 was exactly what the fans wanted and deserved.

A graceful retirement...

The end of the racing careers of Button and Felipe Massa were elegant affairs. They decided on the time that was right for them and gave themselves and their many fans a chance for a proper goodbye. Whilst some people were disappointed that Button didn’t finish the race it seemed somewhat apt that he ended his career as he had spent so much of it. Button himself didn’t seem to mind. His delight at his long and successful F1 career and his excitement and relief at starting a new chapter of his life were overwhelming. After Massa's emotional farewell to his home fans in Brazil, his career finished with a respectable ninth place finish.

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The breaking of the unwritten rules...

Is Rosberg the first person ever to pick up Bernie Ecclestone and live to tell the tale? The jubilant atmosphere behind the podium led to a much more interesting spectacle than the usual murmured conversations and pointed avoidance of rivals. Daniil Kvyat also bizarrely broke with tradition to cycle back to the garage after he retired on track rather than accepting a lift on the back of a motorbike.

A best ever championship finish...

With all the excitement at the front of the grid it was easy to overlook the celebrations going on not much further back. Force India had a fantastic day moving ahead of Williams into fourth in the Constructors' Championship, their highest ever finish. Pérez’s eighth place in Abu Dhabi makes him the first Force India driver to score over a hundred points in a season. As a team with only a fraction of the funding of many rivals, this is a success story for F1 as a whole and there is optimism for 2017.

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And hope for the future...

2017 heralds big changes in the F1 technical regulations. Lap times are expected to be dramatically reduced, with visually different cars. But which team will come out on top in this new era? Mercedes have dominated the current formula and Red Bull before that but a change in regulations can throw up a surprise. Brawn’s championship in 2009 is testament to that.

So it’s all to play for next year, and with Nico Hülkenberg, Kevin Magnussen and Esteban Ocon moving teams there is plenty of opportunity for drivers to prove their talent. Highly rated new drivers Stoffel Vandoorne and Lance Stroll will also be thrown into the mix and we wait to see if they can improve on the 2016 fortunes of their respective teams. Up at the front Daniel Ricciardo and Verstappen will be vying to be crowned the first post-Mercedes champion whilst Hamilton will be adapting to a new teammate in the sister car. Who will come out on top this time? 2017 can’t come quick enough.