The last race of the 2015 Formula 1 season was Nico Rosberg’s to lose, and with it, the confidence of potentially challenging next year for an already twice-lost title – but, for the third time running, the Mercedes driver stood his ground against the unrelenting pursuit from his team-mate.
It was a 50:50 weekend picture in Abu Dhabi with the two Mercedes’ drivers trading fastest times in practice and early qualifying sessions; but when it mattered, Rosberg stepped on the throttle to secure his sixth consecutive pole position. In the grand scale of things, this didn’t mean all that much: earlier that season Lewis Hamilton occupied the top starting spot 11 times, and when he didn’t, he still managed to overtake his team-mate sooner rather than later in the race to claim victory… except for the two grands prix that preceded Abu Dhabi.
The Yas Marina circuit would not have brought back good memories for Rosberg either, seeing that a reliability issue with his Mercedes had robbed him of the opportunity to fight for the double-points win and that way potentially claim the 2014 championship. However, coming up to the final grand prix of this season, the German was on the up from two straight race wins which looked like more of his own doing than a streak of luck.
So, once the lights went off over the marina circuit, Rosberg got off to a faultless start – unlike his team-mate who had to wiggle his way around on the opening straight and into the first corner to protect his second grid spot from Kimi Raikkonen’s attack in the Ferrari and the Force India of Sergio Perez. A threat of an early safety car loomed as a collision on the first corner struck the Lotus of Pastor Maldonado and McLaren of Fernando Alonso off track, leaving the Venezuelan out of the race while the Spaniard continued – somewhat reluctantly as team radio later suggested (not due to a particular issue with the car, but lack of pace overall).
As it turned out after 55 laps, Maldonado was the only retiree of the evening race, which at first promised a lot of excitement, but then wound down to a few semi-thrilling moments. The two Mercedes were not on the cameras’ radar for the first part of the race, as they disappeared into the distance, with Raikkonen trailing relatively close; instead, the drama came from early pitting Valtteri Bottas, whose release after the tire change coincided with Jenson Button entering the McLaren pits a couple of garages ahead, with the two crossing each other’s lines a bit too close. Bottas lost half of his front wing in the contact and had to take a limping lap round the circuit and back into the pits for another nose. Later handed a 5sec drive-through penalty, this had eventually cost the Finn fourth place in the championship when he crossed the line in unlucky 13.
In the meantime, Sebastian Vettel had pulled his Abu Dhabi trick of coming from the back of the grid to challenge for the podium and placed himself between the two pitting Mercedes on lap 12, but by opting for a one-pitstop-less strategy his Ferrari could not match the speed of Lewis Hamilton’s Silver Arrow. One German overtaken, the newly crowned champion could resume his pursuit of the other; at first it looked like slow progress, but then the Brit started racking un fastest times to narrow down the gap to the leader from over 6sec to 1.5sec.
It was time for Rosberg to put a new set of boots to take on the attack, so he dully made his second pit-stop – unlike his team-mate who stayed out trying to build up an advantage sufficient for an undercut when he’d too make his tyre change. This tactic wasn’t working as Rosberg’s Mercedes quickly begun eating up the distance to its sister machine, and Hamilton was left with a decision of whether to go for the harder, more durable compound, which would last him until the end of the race, or the softer tyre, for more grip and faster speeds. The Brit tried to add another option to these, in fact, by wanting to know the calculations for what would happen if he didn’t pit at all, but his engineer was not prepared to listen to such nonsense.
These divagations led to a late second pitstop for Hamilton, after the gap between him and his team-mate reduced dramatically, and Rosberg reemerged as a comfortable leader, to claim his first career hat-trick victory 15 laps later.
“Austin was the low-point, it was a tough weekend,” Rosberg said on the podium. “Since then I have come back stronger and I am excited about the way the end of the season went. Its great to end the season like this and go on holiday like this.”
He was joined by the podium by a female Mercedes aerodynamicist, Kimberly Stevens, and Abu Dhabi favourite Kimi Raikkonen – and of course his team-mate, who was not pleased with how things have gone since his title-winning race, or, looking further back to the first (and only in 2015) grand prix with no Mercedes receiving trophies – Singapore, and the Brit’s changed car set-up which seemed to have been affecting his performance ever since.
Next in line and to top off his best-of-the-rest season was Vettel who, despite having started from 16. – having failed to make it out of Q1 on Saturday due to poor team decisions – had made his early progression to the front stick, to finish just behind his team-mate, sealing the paddock’s hope for a closer battle between Mercedes and Ferrari in 2016.
Sergio Perez and Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo followed, both having shone at different times that weekend – the former challenging for a front-row starting spot on Saturday (but defeated by a faster Ferrari) and the latter performing his signature overtaking manoeuvres on Sunday (but eventually conceding to the Force India, faster on a straight-line).
Romain Grosjean faced a difficult start on his last race with Lotus due to a poor qualifying time, followed by a five-place grid penalty for changing his gearbox, but still managed to claim two swansong points for the team before his departure for Haas Team next year.
The other driver that was rumoured to leave, or rather, take a break from racing – Alonso (rumours which he has denied) finished a distant 17, after having threatened to park the car early if there was no safety car during the race – a promise on which he did not deliver. His team-mate Jenson Button had a much better time on track, successfully defending and fighting for positions, but still finished outside the points, in 12.
So, if we were to take a look at the final 2015 classification, a curious trend emerges: for the top 10, the team-mates are coupled together, denoting the constructors’ standings: Mercedes, Ferrari, Williams, Red Bull and Force India. Each of these five teams have had a driver on at least one of the 19 podiums this season – and that’s it.
With his 14. career win Rosberg has equalled the tally of the legendary Graham Hill, but more importantly, he put off the 44. career win for the car 44 for yet another race – and that on a disadvantaged engine. This gives the German the upper hand going into the winter break and the new year… but the next showing on track is a couple of months away, in which time a lot can change – from cars to mindsets.
However, change is desperately needed in 2016 following this rather uneventful season – and many teams will wish for exactly that as their Christmas present.