ABU DHABI GRAND PRIX: SEBASTIAN VETTEL HEADS RED BULL ONE-TWO, JENSON BUTTON IS THIRD
It was a spectacular end to a truly spectacular season. As a helicopter tracked the action from above, showing off the dazzling Yas Marina circuit in all its neon-lit glory, the crowd rose to their feet to applaud new world champion Jenson Button going wheel-to-wheel with Mark Webber.
By Tom Cary, F1 Correspondent
They may only have been fighting for second place – victory went instead to Webber’s Red Bull team mate Sebastian Vettel, his fourth of an impressive season – and Button may not have made the move stick, but it sent 50,000 race goers off into the desert night chattering excitedly about an event that for a long time looked like being a billion-dollar procession.
The circuit may not have won universal approval from racing purists but it was enough for now. The most expensive Formula One race in history could be classified a success.
Back in the paddock, an end-of-term mood prevailed as teams began packing up their equipment for the long winter months. Some headed off to Aerosmith’s open-air gig at the 16,000-capacity amphitheatre in the shadow of Yas Island’s colossal Ferrari Theme Park, while others donned their dinner jackets and headed for the uber-exclusive Amber Lounge party at the Hilton where VIP tables costing 15,000 euros bought you and your companions a never-ending supply of Cristal Champagne.
Button, for one, promised to go large. To be fair it sounded as if he could be celebrating more than just a world championship-winning season. In a jovial post-race press conference the two Red Bull drivers had teased him – and us – by claiming that the Briton is soon to marry his stunning lingerie-model girlfriend Jessica Michibata.
Button, squirming in his seat, only half denied it. “I’m not getting married this year,” he said when pressed. “So it’s a January wedding then, Jens?” Webber inquired mischievously. The red tops are on red alert.
Button, who will be 30 by the time the paddock re-convenes in Bahrain next March, took it all in good humour. His composure and maturity have been the hallmarks of his season and yesterday was no exception.
Genuinely thrilled but utterly grounded, remembering to thank his team, congratulate his opponents and credit the event organisers.
“Today was a bonus after winning title in Brazil,” he told us. “All round Abu Dhabi was a fantastic experience and I’m looking forward to coming back.”
He is not the only one. Whatever your take on this jaw-dropping £26 billion development, whatever your social conscience tells you about the morals of pumping billions of gallons of water onto an arid desert in order to fashion lush green golf courses, whatever your views on the Hermann Tilke-designed circuit from a racing perspective, this event has raised the bar in terms of what F1 can deliver and expect.
The sheer scale and ambition of Abu Dhabi’s vision has staggered and appalled in equal measure. Poor old Silverstone, which cannot afford to sign Bernie Ecclestone’s latest contract offer to stage the British Grand Prix. What can it do to compete with the petro-dollars available to the sport’s septuagenarian ringmaster in places such as this?
No doubt Qatar or Doha will soon dangle their own golden vision in front of him and demand a slice of the estimated 600-million global television audience.
Formula One is at a crossroads. Somehow Ecclestone must find a way to retain the cash-strapped historic circuits such as Silverstone, Spa and Hockenheim, thereby servicing motor racing’s core market with their annual fix of high-octane action, while at the same time opening the doors to new blood, which helps to make F1 the sporting leviathan it is.
Yet for all its off-track glitz and glamour, for all the A-list celebs that congregated on the grid pre-race, for all the magnificence of the Yas Hotel lighting up as day turned into night, the race itself was average at best.
Naomi Campbell, Jay Kay and Freddie Flintoff barely had time to locate their VIP seats before pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton was out of the race.
The McLaren driver, whose car had set the pace all weekend, led until the first round of stops without ever looking entirely comfortable. He was relegated to second after Vettel pitted and retired on lap 20 with brake failure. “I was locking and locking and locking it was harder than ever to drive the car,” he reported. “It’s a shame as it felt so good these last couple of days.”
Hamilton’s retirement meant the Red Bulls had the race all to themselves until the last few laps when Button, who had passed his team mate Rubens Barrichello on the first lap after the Brazilian’s front wing splintered in a collision with Webber, came roaring back.
Diving inside and out, the world champion actually passed the Australian more than once thanks to his Mercedes engine’s grunt on the straights, but could not make it stick. “It was a good, clean fight,” Webber said.
All of which meant a fourth one-two of the season for the Milton Keynes-based team and second place in the championship for Vettel, surely a world champion-in-waiting.
It is all set up for a fascinating 2010. As the yachts in Yas Marina bobbed gently to the strains of Steven Tyler’s falsetto, and the balmy desert air was turned assorted shades of green, red and blue by the already-iconic Yas Hotel, the curtain was well and truly brought down on 2009.