49 weeks on: F1 returns to Abu Dhabi with completely different landscape

Jon Wilde
Max Verstappen takes the chequered flag at 2021 Abu Dhabi GP.

Max Verstappen takes the chequered flag to win the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Forty nine weeks since one of the most dramatic days in the sport’s history, a completely different F1 landscape is laid out for the 2022 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton will arrive at Yas Marina with vastly contrasting memories of what happened there last December – but this time around, there are no titles on the line.

This is a weekend when Formula 1 says goodbye to two of its biggest names – probably permanently to Sebastian Vettel, maybe temporarily (or maybe not) to Daniel Ricciardo.

But whereas last year both Verstappen and Hamilton craved Abu Dhabi victory for exactly the same reason, only one of them needs it this time – and for the other, finishing second to his team-mate would be ideal in terms of the bigger picture.

Verstappen, now a back-to-back champion, has won a record-breaking 14 races this season. Yet you would have thought finishing sixth in the Sao Paulo Grand Prix last weekend was of huge importance considering his point-blank refusal to gift that position back to his Red Bull colleague, who was right behind him on track.

Perez needed those two extra points to put him ahead of Charles Leclerc in the chase for the World Championship runner-up spot, rather than being level entering the finale and essentially behind on countback for number of wins.

The Dutchman had his “reasons” for failing to comply, the matter was discussed internally with an unhappy Perez and boss Christian Horner, and Verstappen said he would do his bit for the team, if required, in Abu Dhabi.

Will it come to that, though? Or was Interlagos the one chance Verstappen had to repay Perez for the help he has given to him? Not least in Abu Dhabi last year when the Mexican did his utmost to hold up Hamilton after a pit-stop.

“After all I’ve done for him, it’s a bit disappointing, to be honest,” said Perez.

For the favour(s) to be returned, the Red Bull duo would need to be together on track, and that is far from a given with Ferrari and, in particular, Mercedes closely matched to them on pace.

Mercedes were out in front of everyone in Brazil as George Russell broke his F1 duck with the sprint/grand prix double, Hamilton clear of the rest in second.

And so while Verstappen has no necessity to win at Yas Marina this year, especially compared to his team-mate Perez, Hamilton would love to ensure he avoids a first winless campaign since his F1 arrival in 2007.

What a difference a year has made.

There was one literal convergence in the Hamilton/Verstappen situation in Sao Paulo though, for their cars came into conflict on track for the first time this season.

Verstappen was labelled the aggressor by the stewards and received a time penalty – and with their teams now the closest they have been on pace in 2022, there is every chance there could be more fireworks in store before we get to see those that are triggered at chequered-flag time.

Ferrari this week felt compelled to deny a report that Mattia Binotto will soon be replaced by Alfa Romeo’s Fred Vasseur as team principal.

No smoke without fire? F1 being F1, questions are bound to be asked of anyone wearing red and black at Yas Marina, including drivers Leclerc and Carlos Sainz.

For Leclerc, the targets are simple – win the race, and if he cannot, just make sure Perez stays behind. And for both he and Sainz, keep Mercedes in the rear-view mirror in the Constructors’, the gap currently 19 points.

Russell, meanwhile, will be hoping the old ‘buses’ cliché comes true – wait 81 races for your first win and then along comes another immediately after.

The Briton is not exactly oozing confidence though, saying after his triumph in Brazil: “I think Abu Dhabi will probably be similar to…my gut is saying similar to Ferrari, I think maybe a small step behind Red Bull.

“I think the last two races have been quite slow-speed circuits and that’s where we’ve sort of excelled this season.”

Still only seven drivers have finished on the podium this term and at a venue where shocks are especially rare, that looks unlikely to change.

On the day when the football World Cup kicks off some 550 kilometres away by road in Qatar, finishing fourth in the F1 championship will be what matters to Alpine and McLaren – the latter having provided the only 2022 podium finisher from outside of Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes in Lando Norris.

Alpine, like Ferrari, have a 19-point gap over their closest pursuers in the standings and due to the probably limited scoring probabilities they and McLaren possess barring anything unforeseen, it looks likely to be enough to clinch that P4.

Fernando Alonso bids what appears to have become a slightly frosty goodbye to Alpine after this weekend, on his way to Aston Martin, while Ricciardo’s swansong at McLaren will probably be rather more rueful.

The Australian hopes to be back on the grid in 2024, whereas Vettel plans for Abu Dhabi to be his farewell at the grand old age of 35.

A points haul for Aston Martin good enough to lift them above Alfa Romeo, who are five ahead, and into sixth position would be a highly satisfactory way for the four-time former World Champion to bow out.

The closest battle of all between teams remains Haas (37) vs AlphaTauri (35) for eighth position.

How critical that rain-affected qualifying session in Brazil could turn out to be for Haas and the shock pole position secured by Kevin Magnussen.

The Dane clung on for eighth place in the sprint and one point which, with AlphaTauri failing to add to their tally over the weekend, means Haas are in the box seat for the extra dollars.

Again though, there will be a driver with plenty of motivation to go out on a high as Pierre Gasly departs AlphaTauri to take Alonso’s place at Alpine.

Barring the strangest of weekends, Williams will be awarded the wooden spoon and Nicholas Latifi – another driver for whom Abu Dhabi 2021 must evoke unhappy memories – gives way to Logan Sargeant once the final chequered flag of this campaign has fallen.

Read more: Lewis Hamilton doubles down on ‘manipulated’ 2021 title claim