Sebastian vettel is the new world champion, the youngest in history, and for most of a gripping Abu Dhabi Grand Prix he didn't have a clue.
NEW CHAMP CLINCHES TITLE
WITHOUT EVEN KNOWING IT
“To be honest I didn't know anything until I crossed the finish line,” he admitted, after leading every lap apart from a mid-race stint after he had changed tyres and before Jenson Button finally did likewise.
“My engineer kept trying to help me bring the car home, and I kept thinking, ‘Why is this guy so nervous, I must be in good position!' I hadn't seen any of the big TV screens, because I didn't want any distractions, then he comes on the radio and screams at me that we'd just won the world championship.
“Since I was a kid I watched the television, wondering who would win, and we have a guy in our team can tell you every world champion from 1950. To think I'm on that list now, with people like Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher — It's fantastic. I'm speechless!”
After taking his 10th pole position of the season, Vettel controlled the race throughout, taking a tight lead at the start from Lewis Hamilton as Jenson Button in the other McLaren outdragged points leader Fernando Alonso for third place and Mark Webber slotted into fifth behind the Ferrari.
But the outcome of the championship was effectively decided on the opening lap when Schumacher spun and was mounted by an unsighted Tonio Liuzzi.
The legendary German was very lucky at the two cars met face-to-face and the Force India climbed up by the Mercedes' cockpit, and as the safety car came out while the debris was cleared away Mercedes crucially brought in Nico Rosberg to switch to the harder compound Bridgestone tyres, and Renault did likewise with Vitaly Petrov. Both stops would later play key roles.
When the racing resumed, Vettel opened a lead over Hamilton and Button. Webber pitted for the harder tyres as early as the 11th lap, with Alonso following suit four laps later. But as they fell into the midfield behind Petrov, Hamilton did not stop until the 23rd lap, Vettel the 24th.
That put Button into the lead, but as Vettel resumed behind the man he replaces as champion, Hamilton was crucially trapped behind the ever-quick Robert Kubica who was on a long opening stint for Renault on the harder tyres.
Alonso would remain trapped behind Petrov until the finish, just as Webber would remain stuck behind the Ferrari.
Lap after lap the three of them ran around nose to tail, chasing after Kamui Kobayashi, Kubica, Adrian Sutil, Sebastien Buemi, Rosberg and Nico Hulkenberg who separated them from Vettel and the McLarens. Eventually, Kobayahsi, Sutil, Buemi and Hulkenberg all fell way back when they finally changed tyres, but Button only fell to fourth when he finally pitted on the 39th lap, and that became third when Kubica eventually did likewise on the 46th in the most crucial stop of the race.
Since neither Rosberg nor Petrov needed to stop again, it was all too clear that Alonso's hopes were doomed even if he managed to pass Petrov, because he needed fourth overall if he was to avoid losing out to Vettel on fourth place countbacks if he finished fifth. But even that was not a realistic hope, as he failed to dislodge the Russian.
On the slowdown lap the Spaniard's emotions got the better of him, as he exchanged uncomplimentary and unsporting hand signals with Petrov, who had driven the race of his life. It was not an edifying sight.
“The team did everything for the right reasons because we needed to try and jump Seb,” Hamilton said of the timing of his tyre stop, “but unfortunately we came back out behind a Renault.”
The underrated Kubica is one of F1's toughest customers, and even Hamilton was unable to pass until the Pole finally pitted.
“It wasn't the most spectacular season for us,” he said.
“But huge congratulations to Red Bull and to Seb for a fantastic job throughout the year.”
“This was a great end of season for us, me and Jenson, so thanks for everyone at the factory for not giving up.”
As a hugely relieved Red Bull team broke out the champagne, it was impossible not to feel for both Webber and Alonso.
While Alonso gestured, the Australian, predictably, had no complaints about his pit stop timing, even though it didn't work out, and made it clear after the most disappointing race of his life that he'll be back next year. Fighters don't walk away.
“I fully congratulate Seb on the world championship,” he said.
“There were a lot of positives this year. This weekend didn't turn out and it's a shame.
“There's good time to reflect in the next few weeks and look at the highs and the lows, but that's the way sport is sometimes.
“There are quite a few emotions of course when you come so close to the top and you just miss out.
“I tried my absolute hardest. I have great guys around me and we did what we could, but at the end it wasn't enough and that's where it's at. But two championships for the team is not a bad year for us.”