Max Verstappen lined up on the Abu Dhabi grid prepared to play the team game but didn’t have to, the Dutchman unable to help the two-stopping Sergio Perez beat Charles Leclerc.
After the saga that was Brazil, all eyes were on Red Bull at the Yas Marina Circuit as fans waited with bated breath to see if this time the reigning World Champion would listen.
The order never came as Verstappen romped off into the distance with Perez initially running second ahead of Leclerc, before he pitted for a second time. Ferrari swapped their driver onto a one-stop strategy and although Perez closed in, he ran out of laps to make a pass.
While Verstappen celebrated his 15th victory of the season, a new record, Leclerc wrapped up P2 in the Drivers’ standings ahead of Perez, third on the day and in the standings.
The two Red Bulls got away in formation with Leclerc right behind and looking to use his lower-downforce rear wing to pass Perez, but wasn’t able to do so. That put him into Lewis Hamilton’s crosshairs only for Carlos Sainz to pounce, the Spaniard and Hamilton tangling with the Briton running over the kerbs.
With no investigation, Sainz was left asking for Hamilton – who cut the corner – to give him back P4. The Mercedes driver was told to do just that, a quick exchange of position on lap 5. He promptly used DRS to challenge the Ferrari, easily taking the position.
As the Red Bulls ran 1-2, Verstappen pulling away from Perez, they began to drop Leclerc. Further back the departing four – Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Mick Schumacher and Nicholas Latifi – ran P9, 13, 14 and 19.
Ferrari struggled for race pace, Hamilton chasing down Leclerc and George Russell closing in on Sainz. The latter was worried his team-mate was giving Sainz DRS, which allowed the Spaniard to close back on Hamilton and then pass, Russell following him through a few corners later having been told by Mercedes they’re “free to race”. Hamilton complained he’s “losing power”.
While the action with the top six quietened down with Lando Norris a distant seventh, further back Esteban Ocon ran P8 less than a second ahead of Vettel with Fernando Alonso and Yuki Tsunoda also right there with Lance Stroll on the AlphaTauri’s rear wing.
Stroll exited the battle, pitting from 12th place on lap 14 which kicked off nine laps of pit stop action that ended with Verstappen stopping on lap 21 and Leclerc on lap 22 with the field all opting for the hard tyres.
The new order was Verstappen ahead of Perez, Leclerc, the Ferrari driver’s tyres six laps younger than Perez’s, Sainz, Russell, who have a five-second penalty for the unsafe release, Hamilton, Norris and Vettel who had yet to pit, told not to panic as the rest were “two-stoppers”. Vettel stopped on lap 26 but a slow right rear cost him, the Aston Martin driver coming out in 19th place.
Midway through the race the departing four – Ricciardo, Schumacher, Vettel and Latifi – were P15, 16, 19 and 20. All four were promoted one place as Alonso retired his Alpine, pulling into the garage, his sixth DNF of the campaign.
Verstappen again put some space between himself and Perez while Leclerc on his fresher tyres closed in on his P2 protagonist. With Red Bull appearing ready for a pit stop Leclerc was told to do the opposite to Perez, the Mexican driver in on lap 34 and falling to P6, Leclerc staying out. Perez was 18 seconds down on Leclerc with 21 laps to catch the one-stopping Ferrari.
Despite being told to “increase tyre management” Verstappen held a near constant five-second advantage over Leclerc, who was asked if he could “keep this pace to the end with Plan B.” And all the while Hamilton closed in on Russell, who pitted, following Sainz in.
Schumacher and Latifi tangled at Turn 5 but still managed to continued, a sign of relief for Perez it didn’t need a Safety Car and a five-second penalty for the Haas driver for causing a collision. Back at the front Verstappen was happy to keep going, seven seconds ahead of Leclerc, Hamilton third and Perez up to P4 and closing by a second a lap.
Further back it was again Norris in a lonely P7 followed by Ocon and the gaggle of six fighting for the last few points-paying positions, Stroll engaging in a back-and-forth with Guanyu Zhou and winning that.
Perez and Hamilton did the same, passing one another a few times over the course of a lap before the Mexican driver made it stick. Perez was P3 with 10 to go and nine seconds between himself and Leclerc. The chase was on.
But despite showing better pace than either Verstappen or Leclerc, Perez found the chase harder than expected. Meanwhile Hamilton’s race ended on lap 56, a hydraulic issue costing him power and positions.
Back at the front Perez ran out of laps in his fight for second in the Drivers’ Championship. Verstappen took the chequered flag, his 15th race win in what has been a record-breaking season, while Leclerc was second and Perez third, Leclerc finishing three points ahead in the standings.
Sainz was fourth ahead of Russell, Ferrari also taking second in the Constructors’ Championship ahead of Mercedes, with Norris bringing his McLaren home in sixth place.
Ocon, Stroll, Ricciardo and Vettel completed the points. As for the other two from the departing four, Schumacher was 17th on his last race for Haas with Latifi P19 as he said farewell to Williams.
Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Result
1 Max VERSTAPPEN Red Bull Racing 1:27:45.914
2 Charles LECLERC Ferrari +8.771
3 Sergio PEREZ Red Bull Racing +10.093
4 Carlos SAINZ Ferrari+24.892
5 George RUSSELL Mercedes +35.888
6 Lando NORRIS McLaren +56.234
7 Esteban OCON Alpine +57.240
8 Lance STROLL Aston Martin +76.931
9 Daniel RICCIARDO McLaren +83.268
10 Sebastian VETTEL Aston Martin +83.898
11 Yuki TSUNODA AlphaTauri +89.371
12 Guanyu ZHOU Alfa Romeo +1 lap
13 Alexander ALBON Williams +1 lap
14 Pierre GASLY AlphaTauri +1 lap
15 Valtteri BOTTAS Alfa Romeo +1 lap
16 Mick SCHUMACHER Haas F1 Team +1 lap
17 Kevin MAGNUSSEN Haas F1 Team +1 lap
Did not finish
Lewis Hamilton Mercedes – hydraulics
Nicholas Latifi Williams – crash damage
Fernando Alonso Alpine – water leak