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The Long and Winding Road

This weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is the 21st and final stop on the 2018 F1 World Tour. In the past, it’s hosted several dramatic championship finales. This year the big prizes have already been settled – but the Yas Marina Circuit is a genuinely nice place to be, where F1 can send itself away into the off-season with a good race and, quite possibly, the opportunity to let the collective hair down.

The Yas Marina Circuit remains the gold standard for flyaway facilities, which is why it’s become a very popular venue for testing (and will again hold a test after this race). The pit garages are roomy and (beloved by the crews) air conditioned. The paddock buildings all back onto the marina, and most teams make use of them to host rooftop parties and gatherings – but the paddock itself is tight, which makes it a good place for end-of-season intrigue, or simply wishing a fond farewell to people from other teams you may not see again before February.

The race itself tends to be atmospheric – whether there’s a trophy on the line or not. It’s the only race ran at twilight, starting in daylight but with the floodlights gradually taking hold as the sun sets in the first half of the race. That’s done for the purpose of the show – but it has an interesting side effect for engineering, in that the track temperature drops about 15°C over the course of the race, which has a massive effect on the performance of the tyres and the balance of the car.  

That’s more of an issue at Yas than it might be elsewhere. The island is a sculpted, artificial leisure complex, with the circuit built-into the design, with the final sector of the track skirting the marina. It’s a low-speed, tight, street circuit-style layout, and quite different to the wide-open high-speed first and second sectors, which makes setting up the car very difficult, usually requiring teams to give preferential treatment to the long straights and simply hang-on through the twisty bits.

We dominated the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in its early years, with three victories in the first five races – though some of the more significant performances haven’t led to the podium. The race made its debut as the final race of the 2009 season. We’d been the form team in the second half of that season, and though the titles had already gone the way of Brawn GP and Jenson Button, ending the season with a one-two finish, Sebastian Vettel leading Mark Webber over the line was the perfect springboard into a crucial off-season – though there may have been a few sore heads on the first morning of that off-season.

2010 was one of the most dramatic races we’ve ever witnessed. We’d won the Constructors’ title in Brazil seven days earlier, but both Seb and Mark were both in the fight for the drivers’ title going to Abu Dhabi, as were Fernando Alonso and, theoretically, Lewis Hamilton. Seb took the title the right way, with victory, becoming the sport’s youngest-ever World Champion, giving us the double in what was our sixth season of competition. As a side note, he’d never led the championship at any point until the only point that mattered.

In 2011, with both titles already secured, Seb started on pole but didn’t survive the first corner: a puncture putting him out of the race. It was our second of three poles at Yas. Seb was on pole the previous year and Mark in 2013: his 13th and final pole position for the team.

Seb won again in 2013, though his third place the previous year was arguably more significant. Seb started the 2012 race 24th and last, having been under-fuelled in qualifying and penalised accordingly. He had an eventful evening that saw him yo-yo up and down the order, destroy two nosecones but contrive to still finish on the podium, setting up an eventful finish to the season in his showdown with Alonso.

Of course, what everyone remembers from that race is Kimi Räikkönen’s “leave me alone, I know what I’m doing,” radio message. Simon Rennie, Kimi’s race engineer at Lotus, is now a familiar voice on our radio comms, forming a successful partnership with Daniel. Simon agrees that Kimi did indeed know what he was doing – though he’d have liked the Finn to be doing a bit more of it.

Our current drivers haven’t picked up any silverware at Yas Marina yet, both having a best finish of fourth. But there are fourths and there are fourths. Daniel’s fourth place in 2014 is one of his all-time highlights, having started 20th on the grid (relegated to the back after an experimental front wing fell foul of the scrutineers) he ducked and weaved his way up the field, and ticked an item off his bucket list by passing two cars in the same corner.

This weekend is, of course, his final race with us, and we’d very much like him to be leaving with a trophy. We’ve been in a rich vein of form over the last few weeks and, while Yas Marina isn’t a perfect circuit for the RB14, we’re looking to end the year with a very strong performance.