Abu Dhabi GP: Kimi Raikkonen knows what to do as he holds off Fernando Alonso while Sebastian Vettel retains Championship lead
Hamilton forced to retire from lead of the race; Webber's title hopes mathematically ended after being shunted out
By Pete Gill. Last Updated: 04/11/12 6:17pm
For Kimi Raikkonen, the victory. For Sebastian Vettel, a Fernando Alonso-esque damage-limitation operation to retain the lead of the World Championship from the Spaniard. And for the rest of us, two hours of edge-of-the-seat drama as Abu Dhabi produced the grand prix of the year.
Who ever doubted the Yas Marina circuit? After a couple of relatively mundane grands prix, this was F1 back with a bang as the ice-cool Raikkonen held off Alonso's desperate late charge to claim the first victory of his comeback and Lotus' first since 1987, while Vettel pickpocketed third place from Jenson Button with three laps remaining to retain a ten-points lead of the championship.
It was a race which had everything - everything, that is, except for a deserved victory Lewis Hamilton after his McLaren team, not for the first time this season, failed him - literally so, with a power failure on his MP4-27 forcing the blameless Hamilton into retirement from the lead of a grand prix he was controlling.
What it did have, however, was everything else that a great race requires: great racing between the leading protagonists, controversy galore with usual suspects Pastor Maldonado and Romain Grosjean to the fore before Sergio Perez and Paul di Resta sparked a chain reaction of mass carnage and the afternoon's second Safety Car deployment, the best radio message of the year as Raikkonen dismissed advice from his Lotus team with the unforgettable assurance of "I know what I am doing", and a heartstopping collision between Narain Karthikeyan and Nico Rosberg which sent the Mercedes airbone but thankfully ended without injury to either driver.
But most pertinently of all, it was a race which saw Raikkonen deliver a searing reminder of his quality and Vettel salvage a place on the podium after starting from the pitlane following his expulsion from qualifying.
The World Champion rode his luck, losing his front-wing endplate with a clumsy lunge up the inside of Bruno Senna on the first lap before making an emergency stop after crashing into a DRS-zone marker when a hard-braking Daniel Ricciardo caught him unawares as the field meandered behind the first Safety Car.
Forced onto a different strategy from the one-stopping frontrunners, Vettel's second stop - taken on account of his team's belief that his tyres would fall off the proverbial cliff with ten laps still to run - proved to be perfectly timed as Perez tagged Di Resta and Romain Grosjean, sending the Lotus spiralling into the Red Bull of Mark Webber, whose faint mathematical title hopes ended with his retirement, and prompted another reappearance of the Safety Car.
At that stage, Vettel was fourth, but running on soft tyres it was immediately apparent that he would only be going forwards against the mediums-shod Button and after five laps of relentless harrying he found a way past the McLaren to claim his place on the podium.
"He drove an unbelievable race," endorsed Christian Horner. "I would have been happy with eighth. Any doubters who said he couldn't race have definitely been proved wrong today."
How different it might have been but for the two Safety Cars and a splew of retirements, but a champion makes his own luck and the championship is once again in his grasp after dodging the bullet that seemed to be flying in his direction on Saturday night.
"He must be the luckiest man in F1," countered Hamilton, a remark delivered with a wry laugh and undoubtedly in part provoked by frustration at McLaren's latest bout of costly unreliability.
Their race this season has been run. 2012, though, has its signature race, and with just two remaining, it's all still to play for in America and Brazil between Vettel and the relentlessly-optimistic Alonso.
"I'm very happy," said Fernando after his own latest Sunday salvage job. "We were not super competitive this weekend: we started sixth with Sebastian's penalty so we had to fight all through the race. Second I think was the maximum today so a perfect Sunday again for us and we keep fighting until the end."
The end is indeed approaching fast, but with the title battle now officially a straight head-to-head, in many ways the duel is only just beginning. Game on.