After 246 days, the 2022 Formula 1 season reached its conclusion with an Abu Dhabi Grand Prix full of small intrigues and big farewells.
Sebastian Vettel dominated Yas Marina off track on the final weekend of his Formula 1 career, but on the circuit it was Max Verstappen resumed regular programming after his Brazil blip.
The non-existent battle for first wasn’t the story of the race, however. That minor accolade belonged to the fight for second on the road and in the drivers standings between Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc.
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It was decided by strategy and remarkably fell in Ferrari’s favour — imagine that.
Mercedes threatened to play a role on the back of a very competitive trio of races, but it reverted to its disappointing season mean in Abu Dhabi. Mercedes has made great strides this year, but the longest and most difficult is still to come ahead of 2023, when there are no guarantees.
That same lack of certainty continues to dog Daniel Ricciardo, who may well have just finished his final race. The Australian is almost certain to announce sometime this week that he’s returning to Red Bull Racing next season as a third driver, but his prospects for a racing return are no clearer. At least he’ll have gone out on a high — by his recent standards — if this was truly his last dance.
VERSTAPPEN ENDS SEASON WITH EXTENDED RECORD
Max Verstappen brought the 2022 season to a close in much the same way he went about most of the season — by taking it completely within his grasp and controlling the outcome.
Verstappen’s eight-second victory was impressive not for its size but for its restraint.
Having started the race anticipating a two-stop strategy, he converted effortlessly to a single stop without losing momentum or superiority. He pushed only as much as he needed to in order to put victory beyond doubt, always keeping a safety buffer in reserve.
Part of Verstappen’s story this season has obviously been his car, which has been the quickest on the grid in the second half of the year, but the gap to his teammate tells you it’s the Dutchman making the difference. While Sergio Perez mired himself in a battle with the Ferrari drivers, Verstappen was always above the fray.
His 15th victory extends his record for most wins in a season, leaving an indelible mark on the sport. He’s failed to win only twice since the Austrian Grand Prix way back in July.
His 35th career victory puts him sixth in the record books behind only Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. Even his 15 victories this season would be enough on their own for equal 19th, level with Jenson Button’s entire career tally.
“Incredible to win again here and the 15th win of the season is unbelievable,” Verstappen said.
“It’s been really enjoyable to work with the whole team and to be able to achieve something like this this year.
“I know it’s going to be hard to replicate something like this, but it is also motivation to try and do well again next year”
The records are interesting in a historical sense, but the only benchmark that really matters is his form. Verstappen is unquestionably the man to beat, and he made sure no-one could forget that going into the off-season.
The road to the 2023 championship will go through him.
FERRARI NAILS STRATEGY FOR A CHANGE TO TAKE SECOND
It’s rare that we can say at the end of a grand prix that Ferrari nailed its tactics, but in Abu Dhabi it did exactly that — twice.
Charles Leclerc arrived in Yas marina leading Perez for second in the drivers championship on countback thanks to his greater number of race wins, but it took only one practice session to make clear that the Ferrari car would be no match for the Red Bull Racing machine this weekend.
And it wasn’t just the car either. Perez was reasonably dialled in, with only scrappiness keeping the fight for the front row alive.
Leclerc only had to finish ahead of Perez to secure the place, but even just that was a tall order based on pure pace.
So Ferrari had to get creative. And for a change, the team pulled it off.
The race was finely balanced between one stop and two. There was almost nothing in it. Leclerc had decent pace in the middle of the race, but it would’ve been ambitious to think he could beat Perez with the same strategy in unequal machinery.
So when Perez pitted for a second time, Ferrari left Leclerc out in a bold defensive play.
Responding to Perez’s slightly slow stop and him emerging among some slower cars, the Italian team reacted by setting him a gauntlet of 20 seconds in 24 laps to catch and pass the Monegasque. He fell short by 1.3 seconds. Leclerc held second in the title.
Sometimes there’s a fine line between genius and stupidity, but after a season copping criticism for being on the wrong side of some lineball calls, the Scuderia deserves credit for back Leclerc to pull it off.
And the fact that the team got its tactics right with Carlos Sainz at the same time suggests this was no coincidence.
Sainz rolled the dice with the opposite strategy, stopping twice when Mercedes was leaning towards leaving Hamilton out. The Spaniard’s pace was rapid enough early in his final stint that he quickly had Hamilton snookered — a late second stop wouldn’t have saved the Briton, leaving him with no choice but to defend.
Carlos was comfortably on track to overhaul the Mercedes driver before Hamilton retired with a gearbox problem.
“I think we improved towards the end of the season in terms of strategy,” Leclerc said. “We still need to work in terms of race pace, because come Sunday we seem to struggle a bit more.
“But we will push during the winter break in order to catch them a little bit.”
Ferrari set up the final races of the season as a key chance to hone its processes ahead of a title tile in 2023. One race doesn’t make a campaign, but securing second in both championships in the final race will give it some positive energy to feed on during the off-season.
If only decisions like these were being made 22 races ago.
HAMILTON TUMBLES TO WORST CAREER F1 RESULT
This has not been a good year for Lewis Hamilton.
True, some drivers would sign up to a season featuring nine podiums and 240 points without a second thought, but even these relatively lofty achievements are well below Hamilton’s standards.
Sixth on the championship table the lowest finish the Briton has ever had in Formula 1. His previous worst was fifth in McLaren’s difficult 2009 campaign.
In fact Hamilton’s never finished lower than fifth in any car racing championship comprising at least five races in his entire life.
It’s also the first time he’s lost to a teammate since 2016, when Nico Rosberg beat him to that year’s title, and only the second time he’s been bested in his entire Formula 1 career.
His retirement from the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix — the team’s only technical DNF of the year — also confirmed that Hamilton would go a full season without a victory for the first time in his entire racing career, ending a rare and impressive victory streak completely unique in Formula 1.
Only a day earlier he’d had a similar streak for pole positions ended.
“Ultimately I think we started with a car that we didn’t want and we finished with a car that we didn’t want but we were basically stuck with it,” Hamilton summarised to Sky Sports.
“We kept trundling way, kept working away at improving it, but I think the fundamentals have still been there until the end, as you saw this weekend.”
The statistics aren’t quite as bad as they sound. Hamilton is behind Russell on points in part because he bore the heaviest of the diagnostics load early in the year when the car was at its worst. He could also fairly say he copped far more bad luck — or Russell more good luck — in the first half of the season, exacerbating the points margin.
But it’s nonetheless been a remarkable fall from the rare air ordinarily occupied by Hamilton, who less than 12 months ago was riding a wave of momentum into Abu Dhabi and looked on track to secure an unprecedented eighth world title before the unpleasantness of the final laps.
But the new rules haven’t been kind to Mercedes, and while the team is optimistic it can be back at the front next year, it’ll be a nervous off-season of waiting to find out.
“It’s been more of a team building exercise this year, and I’m very, very proud of everybody,” he said. “While we’re not celebrating a world championship, we’ll be celebrating them still for their hard work and efforts.
“I hope that the struggles this year really provide us with the tools and the strength to fight for many more championships moving forward.”
FINAL POINTS FOR VETTEL AND RICCIARDO
One of the key battles and great scraps of the final stint was between eight-time race winner Daniel Ricciardo and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel.
That such zeal was on display for 10th place — which became ninth after Hamilton’s retirement — says everything about where their careers have ended up in what may have been the final race for each of them.
It also decided who finished 11 in the drivers championship. They ended tied on 37 points, with Ricciardo prevailing on countback.
But the lowliness of the places and prizes on offer had little effect on their enthusiasm for the duel, and their reaction to their battle after the race was revealing of their mindsets.
“Obviously we didn‘t go for maybe the best strategy, so it was a shame because I think we could have turned the constructors championship around for us,” Vettel said, referring to his team’s decision to go for the difficult one-stop strategy.
“But overall obviously a big day, and a big thankyou to all the support.
“I think the last two years have been maybe disappointing from a sporting point of view but very, very useful and important to me in my life.
“A lot of things happened, a lot of things that I realised. I think it‘s a huge privilege being in the position that we are in and with that comes some responsibility, so I hope to pass on a little bit to the other drivers to carry on some of the good work.”
Of course Vettel was approaching the race knowing it was his last dance, his swan song. His focus was on the bigger picture, and nostalgia won the day.
Ricciardo, his future still unclear, had a different perspective.
“I’m relieved with how the race ended,” Ricciardo said. “I look back to a week ago (to Brazil), and if that was the finale (crashing out of the race), it certainly would’ve left more of a sour taste in my mouth.
“To see the chequered flag, to be in the points, to hold off Vettel, the last 10 or so laps — that was fun.
“I feel like I crossed the line having put in at least a solid effort, so that makes me feel a little more fulfilled.”
They’re the words of a driver with unfinished business and one not ready to hang up the helmet.
The result was important to Vettel because it was part of the job. The result was important to Ricciardo because he’s still looking for his way back.
Time will tell whether he gets a chance to race again — and for more than ninth place.