Who says ice and heat don’t mix? Kimi ‘The Iceman’ Raikkonen proved the theory wrong with a dumbfounding victory at the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix on Sunday.
The Finn, who won the 2007 World Championship, inherited the lead after yet another Mclaren mechanical failure meant Lewis Hamilton retired from the race at just under half distance. The race proved a classic, the most exciting Abu Dhabi Grand Prix since its inception in 2009, and one that provided a fitting lead in to the finale of the 2012 season.
Hamilton made a perfect start from pole while fellow front-row starter Mark Webber got bogged down with wheelspin, with Raikkonen, Pastor Maldonado and Jenson Button surging past on the run down to turn one. Button darted to the outside of the recovering Red Bull but was inadvertently forced off the circuit, dropping him behind Fernando Alonso. Behind, chaos reigned as Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and Paul Di Resta ricocheted into one another, Hulkenberg retiring on the spot.
Meanwhile, Sebastian Vettel began the race from the pitlane after his penalty for infringing the rules during qualifying, and the reigning World Champion looked decidedly amateurish in the opening laps as he made contact with Bruno Senna’s Williams and damaged his front wing. He then proceeded to pass Romain Grosjean by driving off the circuit in a move reminiscent of his antics at the German Grand Prix back in July, but he was forced to hand back the position. Things took a turn for the downright nasty when Nico Rosberg was taken unawares by a slow Narain Karthikeyan whom he was trying to lap, and the German smashed into the back of the slower HRT racing car. Propelled into the air, the Mercedes tore across the top of the Indian’s machine, with the shattered remains skating across a run-off area and coming to rest in a foam barrier wall. Rosberg leapt from the wreckage unharmed, but the safety car was ordered onto the circuit and the lead built up by Hamilton erased in an instant.
Vettel continued his erratic stunts under the safety car by swerving off the road and crashing into a trackside sign, narrowly avoiding the wall and berating what he saw as dangerous driving by Daniel Ricciardo who was running ahead of him. It seemed more likely however that the Red Bull driver had made the mistake himself by not paying proper attention as Ricciardo warmed his brakes on the circuit.
With the racing back underway, Hamilton again began to ease away at the front, with Raikkonen, Maldonado, Alonso and Webber duly following. Alonso made a run at Maldonado soon afterwards, with the Spaniard slipping by and up to a crucial 3rd place. Mark Webber attempted the same move two laps later, but came unstuck after trying to drive around the outside of the Williams; contact was made and Webber left in a spin that dropped him down the order behind Felipe Massa. Jenson Button repeated Alonso’s move to climb up to what was now 4th place following the demise of Webber.
Mclaren’s mechanical woes struck again though, and on lap 19 Hamilton was forced to pull off the circuit after his engine abruptly cut out. A fuel feed problem was suspected, similar to the one that forced Button to retire from the Italian GP in September. This elevated Raikkonen to the race lead, ahead of Alonso and Button. Further back, Webber again caused an incident when he tried to pass Felipe Massa, the Ferrari spinning out of control while taking avoiding action after Webber cut across the nose of the Brazilian’s Ferrari. Despite an investigation by the race stewards, no action was taken against the Australian for either of the two incidents he had become caught up in. Vettel meanwhile was making slow progress, and made a second pitstop shortly after the retirement of Hamilton’s Mclaren in order to fit a fresh set of tyres that could take him to the end of the Grand Prix.
Webber wasn’t quite done for the day yet; on lap 37 he got caught up in an accident at the same corner he had encountered Massa and Maldonado. Paul Di Resta had passed Sergio Perez for 6th place, but the enthusiastic Mexican refused to admit he had been overtaken and plunged back into the fray after a brief off-track moment. Bouncing over a kerb, the Sauber driver crashed straight into the unfortunate Romain Grosjean who in turn collected the passing Mark Webber. Grosjean and Webber were out instantly with both cars sustaining serious damage, and Perez received a ten second stop-and-go penalty for his actions.
This carnage necessitated another safety car, and it played straight into the hands of…yes, you’re right. Sebastian Vettel.
The German had pitted just before and his luck played an important role in propelling him up to 4th behind Raikkonen, Alonso and Button. Now on the softer tyre, he was able to quickly go on to the attack but was unable to pass Button after the restart. Raikkonen established a small gap over Alonso and the Ferrari driver initially seemed to be struggling, but Button’s woeful lack of straightline speed meant the Mclaren could never quite get close enough to make a serious overtaking attempt. With just three laps left, Vettel went side-by-side with Button and squeezed ahead, although by this time Alonso had recovered some of his form and was just far enough ahead to maintain 2nd place to the flag. Button was 4th, ahead of Maldonado, Kamui Kobayashi, Felipe Massa, Bruno Senna, Britain’s Paul Di Resta and Daniel Ricciardo in 10th.
Raikkonen though was the undisputed winner, and the Lotus driver claimed his first Grand Prix victory since August 2009 in emphatic style. Known for his distinct lack of respect and empathy for the press, Kimi joked on the podium afterwards that he had ‘got a lot of s**t’ for being uncommunicative but he seemed to enjoy the customary celebrations once he had received his trophy. An alcohol-enthusiast as it might be politely termed, the Finn would have been disappointed that the traditional champagne was substituted for rose water thanks to Abu Dhabi’s strict Islamic laws forbidding the consumption of alcohol.
Vettel went a step too far during the post-race podium interview conducted by ex-Formula One driver David Coulthard, and tried to mimic Raikkonen’s laid back attitude on the podium. His choice of language was a bit too Anglo-Saxon and will probably land him with a small reprimand and fine from the FIA for breaching podium protocol. With Alonso 2nd and Vettel a fortunate 3rd, the title remains as close as ever with just 7 points separating the title protagonists with 50 left to play for. Neither could take a decisive victory today though.
Raikkonen’s race engineer came on the radio halfway through the race and told his driver to manage the tyres and car carefully. ‘Yes yes yes’ came the impatient reply over the crackling radio line. ‘Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing.’
He wasn’t wrong.