Lewis Hamilton cruised to victory at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to take his 11th win of the season.
Polesitter Hamilton was untroubled leading from lights to flag. An effortless getaway at lights-out ensured he could exact his Mercedes car’s formidable pace on the field, pulling away initially at almost a second a lap before moderating his pace in the face of lacking competition.
With his lead secure even after all his front-running rivals stopped earlier than him in vain attempts to execute an unlikely undercut, the reigning world champion needed only to massage his car to the checkered flag to take a comprehensive 84th career victory.
“Honestly, I’m proud but just super grateful for this incredible team,” Hamilton said. “To all at Mercedes who’ve continued to push this year, who would’ve thought at the end of the year we’d have this strength in the race?”
While Hamilton’s pace at the top step of the podium was never in doubt, the identity of the next-best driver wasn’t decided until Lap 32 in a flash of action in the emerging rivalry between Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.
Leclerc started third behind Verstappen but jumped him at the start and opted for an early stop on lap 12 to a new set of hards in an attempt force Red Bull Racing to fight on his terms.
Verstappen, however, was more easily able to eke life from the yellow-striped compound to delay his stop until Lap 25. The Dutchman emerged five seconds behind the Monegasque but with a substantial tire-life advantage, and by lap 32 he launched aa DRS-assisted attack at the end of the long back straight into Turn 8.
A great exit from Turn 9 allowed Leclerc a final attempt to retake second position, and though the pair bumped wheels, the Ferrari came off second best and was forced to yield, allowing Verstappen to gallop into the distance.
It guaranteed the Dutchman third in the championship standings ahead of both Ferrari drivers.
“We had to do a bit of a different strategy to Ferrari … after that I think our pace was quite decent,” he said. “To be P3 in the championship is a nice ending.”
Ferrari’s attention turned to consolidating Leclerc’s third place from the fast-finishing Valtteri Bottas, pre-emptively pitting him for a new set of soft tires on Lap 38. He emerged only 1.5 seconds ahead of the Finn, but the new red-striped rubber had him rapidly build a buffer big enough to successfully defend the Finn’s late advances.
Leclerc’s result, finishing again ahead of teammate Sebastian Vettel, ensured he ended the season as Ferrari’s highest point scorer in his first year with the team.
“I’m extremely happy about this year,” he said. “It’s been a great year — a realization of a dream since childhood.
“Now it’s up to me to work to get better and hopefully give them the success they deserve.”
But even with track position secured Leclerc’s third remains far from guaranteed. The Monegasque’s car was referred to the stewards for allegedly breaching a technical directive relating to the measurement of fuel in the tank.
A report from FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer found a “significant difference” between Leclerc’s declared fuel load and the amount found in the tank, and the stewards were due to hear from Ferrari after the race.
Bottas was forced to accept fourth at the flag after a strong recovery from the back of the field with a grid penalty for an engine change. Equipped with that brand-new power unit, Bottas was able to make up five positions on the first lap and steady progress thereafter to put himself in podium contention by the time he made his sole pit stop on Lap 30, switching from mediums to hards.
He pushed Leclerc hard in the final two laps as the Ferrari’s tires began degrading, but the Finn couldn’t get close enough to attempt a pass.
Alex Albon and Sebastian Vettel enlivened the battle for fifth late in the race, with the German passing the Thai on the penultimate lap courtesy of a late switch to a two-stop strategy putting him onto a fresh set of medium tires.
But while the battle among the front-runners was staid, the battle for the lower points-paying places was anything but, with a variety of strategies converging in the final phase of the race.
The McLaren and Renault pairs controlled the final four points paces early in the race, but Carlos Sainz, Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo lost out for stopping between Laps 8 and 12 when a circuit-wide DRS problem made overtaking difficult even with newer rubber.
Nico Hulkenberg was able to take advantage of the problem by stopping on Lap 18 just as the overtaking aid was re-activated, but the private McLaren-Renault battle was disrupted by some superb strategy from Racing Point and Toro Rosso.
Sergio Perez and Daniil Kvyat, starting 10th and 13th respectively, ran extremely long in their opening stints, rising to seventh and eighth before stopping on Laps 37 and 40.
Perez switched to the hard tire and Kvyat to the medium, losing five places apiece, but their late pace was so strong that Perez was able to snatch seventh from Norris on the final lap, with Kvyat only 1.2 seconds behind the embattled Briton.
Carlos Sainz was defenseless against the fast-finishing pair but managed to sustain immense pressure from Ricciardo and Hulkenberg to the flag to take the final point of the race, securing him an impressive sixth in the drivers standings ahead of Pierre Gasly.