Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – Max Verstappen eased to a nineteenth victory of the season after holding off Charles Leclerc’s challenge on the opening lap.
For the final time this year, Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc lined up on the front row of the grid as they looked to end their season on a high by taking a podium if not a victory. Behind the two were Oscar Piastri and George Russell.
Lando Norris had been Verstappen’s closest rival in qualifying but an error on his final lap saw him fail to improve, so he’ll start P5. Sergio Perez sealed P2 in the championship last weekend, which is the first time Red Bull have managed a 1-2 in the Drivers’ standings. The Mexican though had his last qualifying lap deleted so he’ll start P9. Carlos Sainz and Lewis Hamilton were the shocks of Q1 and Q2 as they failed to progress and will start P16 and P11 respectively.
For the race, the medium tyres were the majority choice with seventeen of the twenty drivers lining up with the yellow-ringed tyres attached while Lance Stroll P13, Sainz, and Valtteri Bottas P18, decided to try something different with that hard compound instead. Stroll, along with the Williams’, Alex Albon P14 and Logan Sargeant P20, were the only drivers not on fresh rubber for the start.
When the lights went out Verstappen had to defend from Leclerc but held the lead, behind them Norris and Russell went side-by-side through the first corner and the McLaren driver managed to move ahead. Leclerc made a couple of other moves for the lead on the opening lap, and almost made it, but Verstappen was having none of it.
After the pressure of the first lap, Verstappen then pulled a gap over the second one, pulling over a second ahead of the Ferrari driver while Piastri closed up to Leclerc. Lap four though saw Norris get ahead of his teammate and move into the podium positions as he started setting fastest laps.
By lap 7, Piastri had fallen out of DRS range of his teammate which made it easier for Russell to try a move on him. The Mercedes driver attempted to go around the outside at T9 but the Australian managed to hold him off then and when he tried the move again a couple of laps later.
It took until lap 11 for Russell to make the move stick, the Mercedes driver getting the move done on the run down to T9 on this occasion.
After battling with Hamilton at the start, Perez hadn’t managed to move forwards until lap 12 when he passed Pierre Gasly for P8 before getting gifted another position when Fernando Alonso ducked into the pits from P7.
Piastri headed to the pits on lap 14 to switch to the hard tyre before emerging back in P15, just ahead of Alonso. The following lap saw Norris and Russell make their own stops, a slow stop for McLaren however allowed the Mercedes driver to overtake in the pits and emerge in P13, ahead of Norris.
Back on track, Hamilton was challenging Gasly for P5 and the two touched when the Alpine driver locked up through T6. The Mercedes’ front wing got slightly damaged but the team decided not to change it when he stopped at the end of the lap.
The race leader made his stop at the end of lap 16, and came out in P7, the six cars ahead of him all still to stop. Leclerc stopped the next time around, rejoining behind Verstappen though the gap between the two was bigger than prior to the stops. That left Yuki Tsunoda leading the race ahead of Lance Stroll and Sainz, that trio didn’t last too long though as Verstappen got the better of the Ferrari and the Aston Martin over the course of the following few laps.
The Age of Tsunoda came to an end on lap 23, when the AlphaTauri driver took to the pitlane. Stroll followed him in and so Sainz, now in P5 was the last of the top 10 yet to stop, but he did so on the next occasion, taking another set of hards before rejoining back where he started, in P16.
At the halfway point of the race, Perez had been closing in on Piastri and went down the inside of the McLaren driver at T6 to take P5 and split the two McLarens.
On lap 34, Norris was the first of the frontrunners to head to the pits for the second round of stops. He dropped from P4 to P10 and continued on new hards. Russell covered him on the next lap, managing to get out just ahead of the McLaren driver.
Leclerc then had to stop to cover off those two and did so on lap 36, the Ferrari racers emerging in P6 while Hamilton made his own stop from P6 and stopped to P12, 8 seconds behind Sainz.
As that was happening, Russell and Norris closed up on Stroll, the Mercedes getting ahead to give him a bit of breathing space from the speedy McLaren. By the time Norris cleared the Canadian driver, he had lost an extra second and a half to Russell.
There was a bit of drama between Alonso and Hamilton, the Spaniard having gotten ahead of the Brit but then seemed to brake earlier than usual at T5, Hamilton telling his team that he was brake-tested, while the Stewards noted the incident for potential erratic driving, the decided not to investigate.
Verstappen made his final stop on lap 44, comfortably remaining in the lead when he emerged with Leclerc in P2 just over five seconds behind the leader. Just after that, a message from race control came on screen to say Hamilton had been noted for a pit stop infringement.
The seven-time champion will be investigated for the potential infringement after the race. He won’t be the only one though, as Gasly will be investigated for the same thing. Later it was revealed that the issue was for pit crew not wearing their mandatory eye protection during the stops. Verstappen, Sergeant and Zhou Guanyu were all added to the list of pit stop infringement to be investigated.
On lap 47, Perez was closing up on Norris and tried to go down the inside at T6 and the two made contact. The McLaren driver took to the run-off and remained ahead as a result. The Mexican though continued the charge and made the pass stick a lap later. The Stewards investigated the incident and gave Perez a five second time penalty.
There were a few other passes happening around the same time, Hamilton getting ahead of Sainz for P9 while Piastri got the better of Tsunoda for P6.
On lap 55 Perez passed Russell for the final podium spot but he needed to put his foot down to pull a five second gap to the Mercedes driver if he wants to hold the spot after his penalty gets applied.
While Sainz was running in P10, though Stroll was right on his rear wing, Ferrari had only run the Spaniard on the hard compound and had been hoping for a Safety Car to help them out but, as none came, Sainz had to come in on lap 57 to swap compound before rejoining in P15.
At the front, Leclerc was thinking critically and allowed Perez through to see if the Red Bull driver could pull the five second gap to Russell to help Ferrari finish runner-up ahead of Mercedes in the Teams’ championship. In the end, Perez didn’t quite make up the time, and fell back to P4, 1.1 seconds behind Russell once the penalty was applied. So it was a Verstappen, Leclerc, Russell podium, with the Red Bull driver also taking the fastest lap, a 1:26.993.
Norris and Piastri finished P5 and P6 ahead of Alonso while Tsunoda and Hamilton fought over P8 at the end. The Mercedes driver did briefly get ahead on the final lap, but locked up which allowed the Japanese driver back through to give AlphaTauri points in their final race under that banner and also Team Principal, Franz Tost’s last race. The final point went to Stroll, while Sainz was the only retirement of the race, having returned to the pits the lap after switching to softs.