Lewis Hamilton showed signs of his old self as he stormed to victory in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday,after Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel retired on the first lap.
Vettel’s Red Bull picked up a right rear puncture and spun off at Turn Two. The German driver made it back to the pits but the damage was too great for him to continue and he retired for the first time this season.
Hamilton,the 2008 champion,took over the lead and finished 8.4 seconds ahead of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso for his third win of the season.
Hamilton’s teammate Jenson Button was third,followed by Red Bull driver Mark Webber at the Yas Marina Circuit.
“Mega job mega job guys as usual,” Hamilton said over the team radio as he crossed the finish line. “I want to dedicate this win to my mum. Happy birthday and thanks for coming out here.”
Hamilton did a brief jig on his car in front of the crowd before jumping over a barrier and hugging his mother.
It was a solid return to form for Hamilton,whose season has been overshadowed by several costly penalties,a running feud with Ferrari driver Felipe Massa and off-track distractions. Last year Hamilton dropped his father,Anthony Hamilton,as manager and last month he confirmed he had broken up with longtime girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger of the pop group Pussycat Dolls.
“I feel fantastic. I think it was one of my best races,” Hamilton said. “To hold off one of the best drivers in the world is something that is very tough to do. Obviously,the team did a fantastic job with pit stops. I’m very happy to be back up here.”
Alonso briefly took the lead when Hamilton pitted with 14 laps to go but Hamilton took top spot back three laps later when Alonso pitted. The Spaniard never posed a serious threat after that.
“I had a very good start and the first lap fighting with Jenson,” Alonso said. “Then we found ourselves second and we were three to five seconds behind Lewis. In the last stop we were two seconds later than the McLarens. But there was a bit of traffic and I’m not sure that even with the faster stop we could have overtaken.”
Despite Vettel’s retirement,Red Bull was on course to secure a podium finish with Webber holding on to third place coming into the final lap. But the Australian had yet to make his obligatory pit stop for the harder tires,which handed third place to Button and ended a streak of 19 races that Red Bull had finished on the podium.
Button,who had battled with Webber all race,said “he was very surprised” by Red Bull’s decision to pit so late. He surmised it might have a bid to take advantage of his mechanical troubles,since he struggled all race with a KERS power boost system that failed for long stretches.
“I don’t know if they thought I had the KERS problem for the rest of race because when I had the KERS problem I was obviously a lot slower and he was pushing me around for 15 laps,” Button said. “As soon as I sorted out the problem,I would go a half second quicker. I don’t know. It’s a strange decision to make but they also made a mistake on their first pit stop.”
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said the three-stop strategy for Webber was aimed at beating Ferrari’s Felipe Massa for fourth and then taking aim at Button. It came about because Webber made an unusually long first pit stop due to a “wheel nut issue” that put him behind Massa into fifth.
“Unfortunately,there just weren’t enough laps to pull out a big enough gap but it was worth a go and Mark drove well,” Horner said.
But much of the talk in Abu Dhabi was about Vettel’s early exit.
It was a rare setback for a driver whose dominance this year harked back to the days of his compatriot and seven-time Formula One champion Michael Schumacher. The 24-year-old German had already clinched the championship title in Japan in October and won the subsequent two races in South Korea and India to bring his total to 11.
On Saturday,Vettel stole Hamilton’s thunder when he qualified in pole position on the last lap to tie Nigel Mansell’s record of 14 poles in a season. That left him poised to make it three wins in a row in Abu Dhabi and move a step closer to tying Schumacher’s record of 13 wins in a season.
But his bid ended in a matter of seconds. Vettel said in a statement that “everything seemed fine” at the start but that something “was odd at the rear right” as he turned into the second corner.
“I had to catch the car surprisingly and then the second time,I couldn’t do it anymore as I’d lost too much air in the rear right tire,” Vettel said. “When I got back to the pits,the resulting suspension damage meant we couldn’t carry on… There wasn’t anything we could have done better really this weekend. We just need to look at what caused the puncture.”