Righting his wrongs
Tony Jardine wonders if Fernando Alonso can make amends for his 2010 horror show in Abu Dhabi.
Last Updated: 19/03/12 2:00pm
The F1 circus rolls into Abu Dhabi this weekend for the penultimate round of the season.
This is only the third time that Formula One has visited the spectacular Yas Marina circuit, and while the inaugural 2009 race was a dead rubber - Jenson Button had sealed the world title at the previous round in Brazil - last year's race was a dramatic four-way title decider between Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.
Sadly, there won't be a repeat of last year's title-deciding suspense, but key for me will be how Fernando Alonso and Ferrari respond to the huge disappointment of last year's race.
The facilities at Yas Marina are truly world class, and the mix of day and night racing through the twilight hours makes it a unique experience for drivers, teams and spectators alike. But the circuit came in for quite a bit of criticism in 2010 because the drivers found it very difficult to overtake - none more so than Alonso.
Going into the season finale, the Ferrari driver was leading the championship and hotly tipped to secure the drivers' title. But it all went horribly wrong when a defensive pit stop strategy resulted in Alonso getting stuck behind Vitaly Petrov's Renault.
And that's where he stayed for most of the race, eventually finishing seventh and second overall in the championship, just four points behind 2010 World Champion Sebastian Vettel.
And little has changed since...
Vettel has totally dominated the 2011 season, securing highly impressive back-to-back World Championships, while all others have struggled to keep up. McLaren have been inconsistent and Ferrari have been uncharacteristically off-the-pace, while Vettel's Red Bull team mate, Mark Webber, is still to win a race in 2011.
So, based on current form, and the fact that he won both Abu Dhabi Grands Prix in 2009 and 2010, it's difficult to look beyond Vettel for another win this weekend.
But there are plenty of outside bets worth considering...
Vettel aside, my tip for this weekend is Fernando Alonso. The outcome of last year's race will act as a huge motivator for both him and Ferrari. What's more, technical director Pat Fry believes the use of two DRS zones will prevent a repeat of the overtaking problems that cost Alonso his shot at the title in 2010.
"Last year, as we found to our cost, overtaking was very difficult at this circuit, however, we have seen a big change this year thanks to several factors, including the DRS," he explained.
"I'm sure that, with two DRS zones available, it will be easier this weekend than in 2010, but until we get to the track it is hard to say exactly how straightforward it will be. In terms of what we can expect for this weekend, if we put everything together perfectly, as we did in India with Fernando, we should have a reasonable chance of getting onto the podium."
Ferrari will also be boosted by the modified version of its front wing, which both drivers will be using in Abu Dhabi.
Jenson Button is another man in form. Since Hungary, he has finished six out of seven races on the podium, including an incredible win in Japan, and - after Vettel - has been the most consistent driver on the grid.
With the 2011 title sewn up, the McLaren driver will be out to tighten his grip on second place in the championship. And he's got a good record at Yas Marina, having finished on the podium in both 2009 and 2010.
"Abu Dhabi has special memories for me," said Button ahead of this weekend, "because it was my first race after I'd won the world championship in 2009 - I remember I had a fantastic battle with Mark [Webber] and finished third.
"It's usually been quite difficult to overtake here, especially last year, but I think that DRS will change all that. Our car should suit this circuit so I'm very optimistic. We saw at the last Grand Prix that even though we didn't have the ultimate speed to catch and pass Sebastian [Vettel], we made him work hard for the win."
Button's team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, has been equally bullish about his chances of victory this weekend. Despite Vettel winning the last two Grands Prix, Hamilton is confident that the Yas Marina circuit's long straights and low-speed corners should play to the strengths of McLaren.
"I think we've got every reason to be confident for Abu Dhabi," said Hamilton. "This circuit should really suit the characteristics of our car - we should be able to capitalise on the layout to maximise the benefit of DRS and KERS, both of which are very strong on our car. Red Bull and Sebastian [Vettel] may have clinched both championships, but I'm still determined to end the season on a winning high."
With both the driver and constructor titles won, this race will be a lottery. There'll be no team orders and no holds barred, so Button, Alonso, Webber and Hamilton will all be in the mix with Vettel. Also, second place in the drivers' championship is still up for grabs and it will be interesting to see how the battle for supremacy pans out.
Jenson Button, currently second in the drivers' championship, has a 13 point lead over third-place driver Alonso, and a 19-point lead over Webber, who has been outshone by his team-mate this season and will be desperate for a strong finish to his 2011 campaign.
Button also enjoys a significant 38-point margin over Hamilton, but with two races to go, and 50 points still up for grabs, all four drivers will be giving it their all, right up to the final chequered flag of the season.
Also keep an eye out for Sauber Ferraris this weekend, trying to redeem themselves on a slower circuit - which will suit them - and the continuing battle between Force India and Toro Rosso for crucial places in the constructors' championship.
The Mercedes of Schumacher and Rosberg could struggle on this tighter track though, as they have only found form at the outright high-speed circuits so far this year.
Key to an exciting race will be Qualifying. Dry weather and reasonable track conditions are practically a given in Abu Dhabi, so the teams and drivers will have to pull something special out of the bag.
IF McLaren and Ferrari can prevent an all-Red Bull 'shut out' at the front of the grid, and IF they can get their noses in front after the all-important first corner, we'll have an exciting race on our hands.
That's a lot of 'ifs', given Red Bull's dominance... and here's one more for my Abu Dhabi Grand Prix prediction: IF Sebastian Vettel fails to secure his 13th race win of the season this weekend, my money is on Ferrari's Fernando Alonso.