They called it the “Duel in the Desert.” Under the lights in Abu Dhabi, two drivers vied for the championship on the 21st and final race of the longest season in F1 history.
Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton were split by only 12 points heading into the season finale. Permutations were the main talking points of the weekend. As championship leader, Rosberg needed a minimum third place to clinch the title even if Hamilton won the race. On the other hand, Hamilton at the very least needed a podium finish even if Rosberg were to retire from the race. The Mercedes teammates have finished one-two in the past three races with Hamilton taking all the wins. Crucially, Rosberg didn’t even need to win in the final four races to become champion—all he needed to do was to keep his nose clean and pace himself.
As such, the two Mercedes locked out the front row of the grid for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix with Hamilton on pole and Rosberg second. Momentum and statistics favored another Silver Arrows one-two finish, which was a scenario that Hamilton did not want. In order to be crowned a four-time champion, he had to find a way to spoil his teammate’s result. Then again, there were no guarantees, as absolutely anything can happen within 55 laps around the Yas Marina Circuit.
When the red lights went off in the Abu Dhabi twilight, Hamilton and Rosberg consolidated their positions up front. A few rows behind, the Red Bull of Max Verstappen spun after a slight tangle with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg in the first corner. Verstappen’s spin was to prove crucial later on in the race.
Curiously, the mighty Mercedes pair wasn’t leaving the rest of the field behind in a cloud of dust as was normal. Hamilton up front was deliberately slowing his pace, putting into play his scheme to back Rosberg up into their opponents. The two Ferraris of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel, split in between by the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo, applied pressure on Rosberg throughout the first stint.
The first round of pit stops went by and Hamilton maintained his lead but Rosberg now found himself in third, behind Verstappen who hadn’t pitted. Rosberg didn’t need to fight too hard because third place was enough but because of Verstappen’s different pit strategy, the championship leader had to free himself from behind the Red Bull. Bravely, Rosberg attacked the unpredictable Verstappen to regain track position. Their brief skirmish along the two back straights of the Yas Marina Circuit was a heart-stopping tightrope walk for Rosberg. One wrong move could’ve ended his championship hopes but he managed to get through unscathed. Verstappen eventually made his pit stop a few laps later, making him the only one-stopper among the front runners.
The two Mercedes took their second pit stops with Hamilton still maintaining the net lead of the race. Because Rosberg was able to overtake Verstappen on track previously, he emerged ahead of the Red Bull after his second pit stop. Respectively, Hamilton and Rosberg ran second and third because Vettel stayed out to inherit the overall race lead. The Ferrari driver had prolonged his Soft tire stint in order to run the Supersoft compound for his final stint.This strategy worked out brilliantly.
Vettel momentarily dropped to sixth after his final pit stop but because he was on fresher and faster rubber, it was a lot less difficult for him to make his way back up the order. Teammate Raikkonen let him through unchallenged. With supreme pace, Vettel then dispatched Ricciardo and then Verstappen to move up to third as the race neared its conclusion.
Back in front, Hamilton again deliberately slowed his pace, allowing the field to bunch up. The very tense final handful of laps featured a train of cars led by Hamilton, followed by Rosberg, Vettel, and Verstappen. It was nail-biting and a very fittingly dramatic final few laps of the season.
Hamilton needed to get Vettel and Verstappen to overtake Rosberg. His tactics were understandable but over at the Mercedes pit wall, the bosses were not too pleased with Hamilton putting the race win at risk. Still, in that desperate situation, he had to make something happen to snatch away the title from his teammate’s grasp. Rosberg only needed to hang on to second but Vettel was rapid and Verstappen was still dangerous despite running on older tires.
As his engineers continued to haggle him to go faster, Hamilton was obstinate, openly refusing to follow suit as he drove even slower in the lead. On the penultimate lap, Vettel attempted a move on Rosberg along the second back straight but the latter took the perfect defensive line into Turn 11. Vettel tried again on the same corner in the last lap but Rosberg managed to stay ahead just enough. There were virtually no overtaking opportunities in the lap’s final sector so despite Hamilton’s excruciatingly slow driving, Rosberg held on until the end by calmly, cleanly weathering the storm.
At the checkered flag, the top four finished within roughly 1.7 seconds of one another. Talk about a tight finish.
Nico Rosberg crossed the finish line in second place but ultimately took the crown as World Champion for 2016. Hamilton took his tenth race victory of the season but in the final drivers’ standings, Rosberg stood at 385 points to Hamilton’s 380. Despite having one less win than his teammate, it was Rosberg’s consistency across a tough 21-race season that buoyed him to his maiden drivers’ championship.
Thirty four years after his father Keke won the World Championship, Nico finally became a Formula One World Champion himself after 206 race starts across eleven seasons. Congratulations to the Rosberg family and to the Mercedes F1 team. What a brilliant ending to the season!