It is, as the saying goes, going to be a humdinger. The Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit sees Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso almost neck-and-neck in the battle for the 2012 Formula One World Championship. Oh yeah, and Kylie and Eminem will be performing too! Just three years since its first appearance in F1, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is steadily becoming an established fixture on the racing calender.
Journalists have been wowed by what they have described as an, “extraordinary facility” (the UK’s Daily Telegraph), taking note of the venue’s “pristine glamour” (the BBC). But there’s something else. This year, there is a growing sense that Formula 1 is right at the top of its game – that this is the best season ever. It’s so good in fact, that even those with no interest in the sport would be insane to miss it – especially when it’s on our doorstep. Open a window and cock an ear to the wind this weekend, and the Gulf will be alive with the sound of engines revving at 18,000rpm and promising racing action like never before.
Still not convinced? Don’t take our word for it. The experts are united in their belief that the 2012 F1 season has brought together the best teams, the best drivers and the best technical tweaks that have resulted in the most level playing field not just in years, but possibly of all time. The first seven races this year saw seven different winners, a new record. “This season is fantastic – the best ever,” enthuses the famously phlegmatic former champion Nigel Mansell. Here’s why he’s right...
“It’s turning into a unique season,” said British F1 ace Lewis Hamilton back in June. “One where every race provides new challenges and different outcomes.” He was absolutely spot on, and while the gap between the winners and stragglers has certainly grown as the season has progressed, round after round has delivered racing of the highest calibre. “We’ve got six world champions racing – the most ever,” says Anthony Rowlinson, editor of F1 Racing magazine. “We’ve also got some young talented drivers who have shown themselves to be very competitive. The cars are performing well and it’s been a very open season. Even now, this close to the end, it’s still exciting.”
“Turning back the clock ten years, we had a one-sided championship, dreary races and a shrinking grid,” adds Keith Collantine, editor of the Formula 1 blog F1 Fanatic. “Formula 1 is much more competitive than it was a decade ago. At the 2002 Spanish Grand Prix, the Ferraris had nine-tenths of a second in hand over all of their rivals in qualifying. At the same race this year, the 15 fastest qualifiers from nine different teams were covered by less than a second.” This levelling of the playing field doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone could win in Abu Dhabi, but there is a formidable group of six or seven names at the top of the table, any one of whom could nail it.
An end to hard-to-fathom technical stuff
The 2011 season was something of a one-horse race, thanks to the overwhelming prowess of Red Bull Racing. Some say one of their main advantages was their ability to get to grips with a puzzling bit of technology called the exhaust blown diffuser, which is banned this year. “It basically used exhaust gases from the engine to blow into a diffuser, which was like an inverted wing at the back of the car and created more downforce,” explains Anthony. “The only team that really mastered it was Red Bull, and they creamed both championships – drivers’ and constructors’.” Now that it’s gone, no one team is flying ahead of everyone else although Vettel has made a blistering late surge for Red Bull.
This technology has now been replaced with something that works for most teams, meaning more exciting racing. “One of the most common criticisms of F1 – which isn’t one that I agree with – is that there’s not enough overtaking,” says Anthony. “That’s been addressed. There’s a new system called DRS, or Drag Reduction System, that enables a car behind to overtake a car in front slightly more easily.” On the subject of DRS, the BBC reports that, “Drivers can use their DRS in a designated zone on the track, and only if they are within one second of the car they are trying to overtake. The driver defending his position is not allowed to use his device.”
The sport’s 2010 and 2011 winner Sebastian Vettel says, “It makes the car more streamlined and gives you about ten kilometres per hour more speed.” But what does all this actually mean? In short; a car closely following another one is allowed, at certain points on the track, to press a button on his steering will that will give his vehicle a boost. So more overtaking, and a much more thrilling race. Also key in the technology stakes is something called Kers, which takes energy used in braking and converts it into power that can be accessed at the press of a button.
Vettel describes his Kinetic Energy Recovery System as, “giving an additional 80bhp to the back wheels”, adding that it could shorten a lap time by about a third of a second. It doesn’t sound like much, but in F1, every little helps. The F1 technical rule book is as thick as a phone directory, but one thing teams could do until recently is test and tweak their vehicles with relative freedom. Today, there are strict limits on the amount of testing they can do, which means that race weekend is arguably even more frenetic than ever.
That’s great for the spectators, who now get to see pretty much everything. “Testing restrictions prevent teams from spending their way to success,” says Keith. And Lotus team principal Éric Boullier agrees. “Part of the unpredictability we’re facing comes from the fact that we have no more testing,” he says. “You have to come with new parts and ideas in Friday testing. You can’t do it a week earlier somewhere in Spain. You have to do it on race weekend.” Adding to the unpredictable racing are the season’s new Pirelli tyres that all of the teams are obliged to use. Michael Schumacher says using this ultra-sensitive rubber is like “driving on raw eggs”. They’re challenging everyone.
The days of Shumacher stepping into his Ferrari and staying in the lead for almost all of every race are long gone. No one knows for sure who will end up on top of the winner’s podium at Abu Dhabi – though the smart money is on Vettel, Alonso or Hamilton. “A lot has changed in a decade,” says Anthony, recalling Schumacher’s five consecutive titles for Ferrari (2000-2004). “He was at his peak. He was driving for a team that was built solely around him, and he had a teammate who would drive in his best interests.
“He also had the most dedicated technical team ever, and a tyre supplier that would make its tyres to suit Michael’s driving style, while everyone else just had to get on with it. None of those things apply any more.” Also stopped now, is the need to refuel during a race. It was introduced in 2002 to add a new tactical element, but Keith says that it actually made races more predictable. It ran for almost ten years before being stopped in 2010.
There is more action than ever today, and many think that the greater number of cars and also more races – 20 this time compared to 17 in 2002 and 16 in 1992 – are reasons why. In the words of two-time F1 champion Mika Häkkinen, “Racing today is brilliant. Definitely better than it was in my time. There’s lots of overtaking and it’s great for spectators.” Nothing stands still for long with Formula One, and just because this season has been a cracker, it’s no guarantee that the sport won’t be in a completely different place within a few years.
Lewis Hamilton’s decision to drive for Mercedes next year won’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, nor will proposals to increase the entrance fees for the teams. The biggest shake-up on the horizon, in fact, is due in 2014, when there will be a whole new set of engine regulations – think greener engines that are partly electric-powered. All we need now is for Bernie Ecclestone to introduce solar-powered panels to give the cars an extra boost of juice. Not that we have a vested interest or anything – of course it hadn’t even crossed our minds that the baking Gulf sun would surely make the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix the fastest on the calendar…With six world champions racing, new gadgets to make cars go faster and tyres that feel like “driving on raw eggs”, the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix just got a whole lot more exciting, says Mike Peake
From Gulf Today