Distance: 5.281 kilometres
The traditional season-closing circuit was revamped last year to improve what had been widely considered a stale and unimaginative layout. It’s now markedly faster thanks to the removal of two chicanes as well as widening turn 5 and creating the new long and banked turn 9, along with some other profile tweaks. It was a marginable improvement to overtaking — though the new generation of cars could push this along further — and retains its rear-limited nature, with traction crucial to performance.
Winner: Max Verstappen (Red Bull Racing)
The 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is one of the sport’s most infamous races, with Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen starting equal on points after a fraught season. Hamilton had controlled the grand prix until a late safety car gave Verstappen a chance to pit for fresh tyres and race control then misapplied its own regulations to restart the race when it should have finished under caution. It was a gift the Dutchman didn’t turn down, and he slid past Hamilton to win the race and the title.
Mercedes arrives on a high, having dominated the São Paulo Grand Prix. George Russell claimed his and the team’s first victory of the season, and Lewis Hamilton in second formed the first Mercedes one-two since 2020.
Both Red Bull Racing and Ferrari acknowledged they had no answer to Mercedes’s pace, notwithstanding that Verstappen and both Ferrari drivers had to combat damage throughout the race. Part of the reason will have been the lack of practice time on a sprint weekend, particularly given the different climatic conditions on Friday compared to Saturday and Sunday.
It’s enlivened the battle for second in the constructors standings, which Ferrari leads by just 19 points.
Mercedes’s bigger presence at the pointy end of races has also prevented Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc from accumulating bigger points in the struggle for second in the drivers championship, for which they’re tied on points.
Despite the one-sided nature of this championship season, the three top teams will arrive in Abu Dhabi with something to shoot for and with reasons to expect a strong performance.
Red Bull Racing’s RB18 is the fastest car on the grid and will naturally start favourite, but the team has been rocked by Verstappen’s refusal to follow a team order to hand Perez sixth place in Brazil, leaving him equal on points with Leclerc. It’ll be the biggest talking point heading into the weekend. Getting Perez ahead of Leclerc will be the team’s principal focus.
Ferrari was reasonably quick in Brazil and will be thinking that on paper Yas Marina should play to its strengths. It’s a traction-dependent track, and launching out of slower corners has been one of the strong points of the SF-75 and the Italian team’s new engine.
Pirelli choosing its softest tyres is the only possible problem given Ferrari’s higher wear problems, but the cooler dusk conditions will help ameliorate this. In any case it will likely just need to get both drivers into the points to secure second in the constructors standings ahead of Mercedes.
Mercedes, meanwhile, will be looking forward to racing on a super-smooth circuit that will give it the chance to run its car close to its optimal low ride height. The car is inefficient and draggy when it’s run too high, and while the team’s found ways to make the W13 faster despite this, the manicured Yas Marina track will broaden the operating window.
Whether it can find the kind of performance levels it did at the far more flowing Interlagos is another question, but there’s a clear optimism in the team that it’s back on the right path.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author. Quotes have been obtained from team press conferences and issued press releases.