It may have taken eighteen races and a few near misses, but Kimi Raikkonen finally claimed his first victory of the season in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Not only was it Raikkonen’s first win in three years but it happened during a scintillating Grand Prix; after three insipid race at Yas Marina, very few expected such a fraught event, despite reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel starting in the pit lane.
Vettel was joined in the pit lane by HRT’s Pedro de La Rosa, who was stranded on the grid after a tyre blanket became caught in his rear wheel. As the lights went out under the sunset at Yas Marina it was Mark Webber who made his customary slow getaway from the front row of the grid. Pastor Maldonado’s start wasn’t brilliant either, which allowed Raikkonen to vault into second place, behind pole sitter Lewis Hamilton. Fernando Alonso got ahead of Jenson Button, while behind them a couple of clumsy moves left Nico Hulkenberg out of the race, Paul di Resta with a puncture and Bruno Senna facing backwards.
Vettel’s race got off to a bad start as he clipped Senna at Turn 8, damaging his front wing, but not extensively enough to warrant a pit stop. At the same corner, Romain Grosjean made contact with Nico Rosberg, requiring both to head to the pit lane.
Hamilton led comfortably and managed to defend his advantage despite running wide at Turn 8 on the second lap. Alonso moved another position up to fourth by boldly passing Webber down into Turn 11.
Courtesy of most of the midfield crashing into each other, Vettel was up to thirteenth place when the safety car came out following a terrifying accident between Nico Rosberg and Narain Karthikeyan. Rosberg was recovering after his early stop and was caught out when the HRT developed a sudden steering problem at Turn 16. Karthikeyan instinctively braked and Rosberg clipped his rear wheel and flew over the top of the Indian driver, slamming into the barriers at Turn 17.
Fortunately, a bemused looking Rosberg was fine, as was Karthikeyan, but there was more drama as Vettel was caught out by Daniel Ricciardo behind the safety car and had to swerve in avoidance. Vettel hit a DRS marker board and had to pit. The reigning champion was furious over the team radio, but was pragmatic later on. “During the safety car, maybe I didn’t pay enough attention. Daniel was slowing down, just as I was warming the tyres and I got surprised”.
Hamilton led easily after the restart but it was another disastrous reliability failure on Lap 20. His McLaren had suffered a fuel pressure problem and ground to a halt. “I’m gutted; I’d had really good pace all weekend and I feel certain we could have won today”, said Hamilton.
Raikkonen inherited the lead and was pulling away from Alonso. Maldonado was slipping down the order as a KERS failure left him helpless on the long straights. However, when Webber attempted to go around the outside of Turn 11, he didn’t give Maldonado enough room and they touched, sending Webber into a spin. Webber recovered and also tangled with Felipe Massa a few laps later, with the Brazilian coming off worse this time.
With Vettel having started on the prime tyres, he was charging on fresher option tyres while his rivals began to struggle on their used options. The front runners all made their one stop - switching from options to primes - leaving Vettel in second place around two seconds behind Raikkonen. Speculation mounted that Vettel would attempt to run to the end of the race, but a radio message for him to push confirmed that another stop was on the cards.
Vettel pitted for another set of option tyres and came out in fourth place, behind Raikkonen, Alonso and Button. Somewhat fortuitously, the Safety Car made another appearance when a close battle between Sergio Perez and Paul di Resta saw them making contact, sending Perez off the road at Turn 13. As he recovered, he collected the helpless Grosjean and Webber, knocking them out of the race and handing himself a ten second stop and go penalty. Raikkonen was becoming frustrated with his team informing him of the restart procedure, resulting in one of the radio messages of the season when Raikkonen cut his engineer short by bellowing ‘yes yes yes, I know what I am doing!’
The restart was to be a twelve lap sprint between the top four drivers, although it nearly came to an end early as a minor error from Alonso at Turn 20 gave Button a sniff of an opportunity and allowed Raikkonen to streak away. Alonso was soon handed a slim gap as Vettel hounded Button, eventually getting through with five laps remaining in a move the Brit described as ‘bold’. Alonso closed the deficit to Raikkonen and was only 0.8s behind when the chequered flag fell.
Amazingly, Vettel had finished on the podium despite starting from the pit lane. The German was lucky with the timings of the safety car, but it was a superb drive and one that will go down in the history books. He sees his championship lead trimmed to ten points, but that was far more than he would have expected when he was sent to the back of the grid late on Saturday evening.
Maldonado managed his problems to take a credible fifth, ahead of Kamui Kobayashi, who started from sixteenth and managed to stay out of trouble to claim sixth. Massa, Senna and di Resta recovered from their collisions to end up in the points, with the top ten being rounded out by Ricciardo. The luckless Michael Schumacher finished eleventh after a late race puncture dropped him out of the points.
Raikkonen celebrated as he crossed the line – after all, it was his first victory for three years – but by the time he returned to parc ferme he was his usual relaxed self. When asked by podium interviewer David Coulthard about his emotions, he nonchalantly replied “Not much really”. Coulthard pushed him further and Kimi replied with one of those quotes.
“Last time you guys was giving me shit because I didn’t really smile enough, so maybe this time again”.
The Iceman has long since been back, but he’s finally on top.