Splashdown in the Desert
Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull complete their Formula 1 missions at Abu Dhabi, while rivals from within and without are left pondering what might have been
In the end, Formula 1's hardest-fought championship battle ever turned on qualifying speed and pit strategy at the final, decisive race – and, in both cases, it was the most inexperienced of the four title contenders who rose to the challenge along with his team.
Sebastian Vettel's domination of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix started with a superb pole-winning lap that contrasted sharply with the disappointing run of teammate and points rival Mark Webber. Timing his run to perfection on a track growing ever faster, Vettel took pole by a 0.03sec margin over Lewis Hamilton, whose McLaren was reinvigorated by tweaks to its rear wing, while Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and Webber were back in third and fifth, respectively.
In the race, Vettel again nervelessly took charge up front, while the pressure of points calculations lured Ferrari into a tactical error that cleared the German's path to the title (see page eight). In a complete turnabout from the errors Vettel had made under pressure in Turkey, Hungary and Belgium, the opportunity brought out the best in the phenom Scuderia Toro Rosso engineer Gianni Ascanelli, who has worked with both drivers, considers “as good as Senna.”
Making his option tires last the planned 24 laps and lapping fast enough not to get stuck behind those who had yet to stop when he changed to the primes, Vettel drove into history as F1's youngest World Champion yet in a manner any of his predecessors would have been proud of.
“All [four] of us had ups and downs. It has been an intense and tough season,” mused Vettel, who credited “ignoring what people are saying” for his turnaround. “This was my approach going into the race and now it's looking good because it all worked.”
Webber shrugged off defeat in F1's most closely watched intra-team battle this year with good grace. “I've got to take my hat off to Sebastian because he's done a good job this year,” he said. “It's amazing to think that the only time he led the championship was after the last race, but that's the only time it matters. Well done to him.”
No Buck Rogers, No Bucks
IndyCar alters its TEAM support program with a view to putting the brakes on drivers with more funds than talent
While it gears up for monumental technical changes in 2012, the IZOD IndyCar Series is addressing a more pressing issue with changes in the allocation of prize funds to its teams. For 2011, funds will be limited to the top 22 finishers from this year's championship, rather than the top 24 as has previously been the case.
Originally introduced to assist the unified field when Champ Car was merged into the Indy Racing League in 2008, the TEAM program gives $1.2 million in additional financial support to full-time entrants. The change means that Dale Coyne Racing's No. 18 car – driven by Milka Duno this year – and Conquest Racing's No. 36 car, in which Bertrand Baguette, Francesco Dracone, Tomas Scheckter, Roger Yasukawa and Sebastian Saavedra made appearances, are no longer eligible for TEAM funding in 2011. IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said the change is intended to encourage a higher quality field, making clear that the revisions are aimed at holding drivers to a higher standard.
“Credibility is very important to us, and we consistently hear from fans that they want to see teams fielding the best of the best on the track,” said Bernard. “Our fans want to see the best teams and drivers, and in achieving that goal, it was very important for us to define our sport.
“When our fans show up at an event, we want to guarantee they're seeing the fastest, most versatile drivers on the track. We never want to have someone uncompetitive who can buy their way into a series. It also creates a sense of urgency for our teams to finish in the top 22 at the end of the season.”
Competitors outside the TEAM cutoff can still receive other payments from IndyCar's various prize and bonus systems, and should any top-22 entrants not compete in 2011, those behind can move into the TEAM bracket. Bernard is confident that the change will not adversely affect grid sizes.
“Even with these changes, we anticipate 25 to 28 cars per race, when factoring in full-time non-Leaders Circle teams and one-off entries,” he said.
Hendrick Shuffles Its Aces
Will a crew chief swap put an end o the losing streaks of three of NASCAR's most popular drivers?
After its fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship season with Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports might seem an unlikely candidate for major off-season changes. But the disappointing seasons of Johnson teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin prompted a restructuring within days of the 2010 finale, shuffling crew chiefs among the No. 88, 24 and 5 Chevy entries.
Gordon's long-term partnership with Steve Letarte therefore comes to an end, as Letarte moves across to work with Earnhardt Jr. In three years with Hendrick, he has won just one race and made the Chase only once, both in 2008.
Gordon – winless in his last 65 Sprint Cup starts – will team up with crew chief Alan Gustafson, who was with veteran Mark Martin for the last two years. Lance McGrew will be Martin's chief next year, having had two winless seasons with Earnhardt.
“This will improve us as an organization across the board,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “We had a championship season, but we weren't where we wanted and needed to be with all four teams.”
The No. 24 team will move to another building at the Hendrick factory, alongside Martin's squad, with Earnhardt's going the other way – meaning Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, and Letarte will continue to work alongside one another.
Justin Wilson takes himself off the IndyCar driver market by re-signing with D&R, but other big names remain in play
One of the key questions about the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series was answered in November when Justin Wilson, who was pondering opportunities with several teams, opted instead to re-sign for a second season with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. In his exclusive Web blog for RACER.com, Wilson said the progress he felt within the team this past season was key to his decision.
“There really is a lot of untapped potential here, and a lot of talented people,” Wilson said. “If we stay focused, keep on having a very logical pattern of what we're doing in testing and carrying each plan out to the letter, there's no reason why we shouldn't be winning races in 2011.”
D&R has yet to announce the remainder of its team, with Mike Conway, Tomas Scheckter and Paul Tracy all hopeful of racing for the team. Meanwhile, free agent Tony Kanaan raised eyebrows by testing the De Ferran Dragon team's Dallara, and China's first F1 test driver and GP2 racer Ho-Pin Tung also put himself in the mix by testing for FAZZT. The Canadian team is working hard to add a second car alongside team co-owner Alex Tagliani for 2011.
Graham Rahal continued to loom off-stage, too. His announced sponsorship package with Service Central increasingly looked to be headed toward a third car program at Chip Ganassi Racing.
Minnow Bites Shark, Again
GT racer Filipe Albuquerque wins Race of Champions
Vettel and Michael Schumacher saved face for the home team by winning the Nation's Cup for Germany for the fourth straight time.