Max Verstappen had fears of Imola failure in F1 Abu Dhabi GP as Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton did not know their engine was toned down.
A peerless lights-to-flag victory for Verstappen began with a strong getaway from the Dutchman, who led into Turn 1 from his P1 grid slot. An error from second-placed Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas, meant the Red Bull driver could continue to pull away upon the exit of the first turn.
Come the end of the first lap, Verstappen was out of DRS range for his rivals, and from the second lap onwards he was able to begin to manage his pace so as to ensure a comfortable race from there on. “We had a decent start I think and from there onwards I could manage the gap and could look after my tyres,” said the Dutchman.
Ten laps in, and with Verstappen’s lead now in excess of three seconds, Racing Point’s Sergio Perez ground to a halt with a mechanical issue. The Mexican’s marooned RP20 warranted Virtual Safety Car, under which leading cars all dove for the pits.
All three with sufficiently quick pit stops, none of the podium runners changed positions as a result, nor did any lose meaningful amounts of time to one another. That was, until a full Safety Car was deployed when marshals were unable to clear Perez’s car without the assistance of a crane. Verstappen explains, “The safety car came out at a little bit of an unfortunate time because we then had to do a very long stint on the hard. Luckily the tyre coped with it but you still have to manage it a bit more.”
Now with the field bunched up, Verstappen had to once more defend from Bottas and the Finn’s teammate Lewis Hamilton, but he did so without trouble, and went on to win in an uneventful fashion. The Dutchman credited a fast car with his race win, only superficially threatened by a vibration that the 23-year-old had noted during the Grand Prix.
He explains that the mysterious issue concerned him as it reminded him to that which he experienced in the Emilia Romagna GP at Imola. For Verstappen, that race ended with a tyre failure. “The car was really good, just a good balance and then you can also look after your tyres and I could then build a gap all the way through the race,” Verstappen, said before adding: “[There was] just a little bit of vibration on the tyre, so I was think back a little bit to Spa but also Imola.
“I was keeping an eye on it on every straight. But yeah, luckily all good. The pace was still there. The tyres were still performing. It was a great way to finish the season, it’s a good boost for everyone in the team here and of course at the factory and I just hope of course that we learn from the previous years that we have to be stronger in the beginning of the season to be able to give then a little bit of a harder time,” said Verstappen, who also noted that the Mercedes pairing were at a slight disadvantage.
Because of power unit issues, both cars ran with conservative engine modes, and it was suspected that this contributed to their lack of pace – although it wasn’t the sole reason for the lack. Both Mercedes drivers say they were unaware of such a change, prompting Verstappen to wisecrack to Hamilton and Bottas that, “Maybe they just don’t want to tell you”.
Bottas confessed after the race, “Honestly, I wasn’t aware that the engine was turned down. I can’t really say much. I don’t know if it was how much it was. So, I don’t know. Red Bull was obviously quicker and for the first time this year they have such a gap on the race pace against us so… not much more to say.”
The Finn adds that understeer in his first stint allowed Verstappen to gain an advantage, but he remained steadfast that he was too slow to have fought the 23-year-old regardless, as was proven after a modification to the car’s set up, he says. “I noticed pretty early on in the first stint that Max and Red Bull had more pace.
“The first stint was quite understeer-y for me. It was a short stint but I felt that was a bit of a limitation but then we made a bit of an adjustment on the front flap for the second stint and that felt actually, balance-wise, not bad, just not quick enough. So, for sure, it was surprising. We thought that the race pace would be pretty much identical to the Red Bull but it wasn’t the case.”
Despite the pace deficit to Verstappen, Bottas was satisfied with his own performance, which saw him ultimately finish second. He called the race “one of the good ones” of his inauspicious 2020 season. “I’ve had much worse races this year, so it’s actually, in this kind of season, one of the good ones for me. At least it was nice and clean. Start was good and everything – so could have been a worse way to end the season.”
His outperformance of Hamilton might also have been something worth celebrating, had it not been for the Brit’s physical struggles as he combatted the lingering effects of his COVID-19 infection, the impact of which was “massive” on his race.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so blown,” said Hamilton. “My body is not feeling great. But look on the bright side: I made it through and I didn’t think anytime last week I would be here so I am truly grateful for my health and to be alive and yeah, looking forward to recovering over the next period of time we have and getting back into training and get my body back to where I know it should be,” he said.
As a result of his health, Hamilton said that his eventual P3 finish was the best he could manage. Like Bottas, he also said that he was unaware of alterations made to his engine, and argued that Red Bull’s outperformance of them was based on “true pace.”
“It was the best I could do,” said Hamilton. “Congrats to Max, it’s a great result, great drive from him all weekend and a great showing that Red Bull has a solid car. As far as I’m aware, we haven’t had any changes to our engine so I think it’s just true pace from them rather than us taking a step back, and I think they’ve worked so hard all through the year so congrats to him and his team.
“It’s not very easy to overtake at this circuit and I think it showed, considering we were all relatively close to each other – apart from Max, obviously, who pulled away but even Alex was right behind me so it shows the strength that they had today. So yeah, I’m just glad I made it through and finished off still relatively strong in terms of consistency, not making mistakes in the season. I’m glad it’s done,” Hamilton concluded.
Here’s how F1 Abu Dhabi GP panned out