At the moment, Formula 1 is basking in a frenzy of media attention surrounding the epic championship duel between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, which will reach its zenith this weekend at Abu Dhabi. The hype that the Mercedes team-mates are generating is putting Formula 1 on the front pages, and has already set up an occasion that will surely pull in viewers in their millions. With all the coverage that the two championship protagonists are receiving it does seem as though there are only two cars competing this weekend! Nevertheless, the championship isn’t the only battle that will be fought in front of the setting middle-Eastern sun at the end of the weekend. While fourth place in the drivers’ championship is hardly the most desirable accolade to receive, it may prove to be the most dramatic of all the season-ending on-track fights.
Of course, the 2014 season will be perpetually associated with Mercedes. Yet, Sunday’s race will also play host to a sub-plot that has remained very much under the skin, even in the Formula 1 community. While Hamilton and Rosberg have only engaged in sustained wheel-to-wheel combat about half a dozen times this season, the race to uncover the ‘best of the rest’ has always been characterised by great racing, and it’s been a regular occurrence. Sebastian Vettel’s fifth place finish at Interlagos means that he enters the final race of the year just two points ahead of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, while Valtteri Bottas lays a further point behind the Spaniard. While most of the public attention has been given to Mercedes, the battles for the rest of the points have seen some of the most outstanding racing this year. From that scrap between Vettel and Alonso at Silverstone to the Ferrari duel at the last race in Brazil, these examples among others have been proving why next-gen Formula 1 is continuing to build on where the V8-era left off. Here we assess the build up to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix for Vettel, Alonso and Bottas, as they prepare to engage in their own end of season encounter.
It’s no secret that Vettel has struggled this year. He hasn’t had a top-of-the-drawer car, and has had to contend with the additional unwanted pressure that has been exerted by Daniel Ricciardo. In fact, it will probably be the first time in seven years that Vettel has endured a season without winning a Grand Prix. But, with fresh pastures on the horizon at Ferrari for 2015, Vettel has excelled in the closing stages of the season. Consecutive podiums in Singapore and Japan preceded a lull at Sochi before the likeable German driver was able to record a solid fifth place finish at Interlagos. Despite being upstaged by Ricciardo (who may have become the most popular driver in motorsport once this year draws to a close), Vettel is showing the world why he should end the year in fourth. Of course it’s not where he truly wants to be, but Vettel will be determined to end his glistening career at Red Bull on the podium, and to prove to his many critics that 2014 wasn’t the failure that many people have perceived it to be.
The perennial subject of silly season rumour-mongering, Alonso enters this final race with his Ferrari future in doubt. Having finished sixth in the last three races (he is the most frequent sixth place finisher on the grid) Alonso will be hoping to see off yet another uncompetitive season with a top three result at Yas Marina. The Ferrari F14-T has been severely under-gunned all season, but Alonso has still managed to exhibit his calculated but aggressive driving style on several occasions. Despite losing ground on Vettel and Bottas in Japan, Alonso has been consistent in the championship standings, and his track record at Abu Dhabi (two podiums in the last three years) suggests that he is more than capable of leap-frogging Vettel to fourth.
Last year we saw what Bottas was capable of, courtesy of his stunning qualifying drive in Canada. This season the Finn has put those indications of talent into practice. Driving for a resurgent Williams team, Bottas has excelled in 2014 and now headlines the list of drivers that are overdue their first win. Bottas’ year really took flight during the European leg of the championship, where he scored four podiums in five races between Austria and Belgium. While his performance at Abu Dhabi last year was far from spectacular, the Williams driver will be in contention largely thanks to the powerful Mercedes power unit that Williams have made full use of this year. So, we can expect to see Bottas set some quick times in the first two sectors, where optimum speed is essential.
Vettel, Alonso and Bottas have all experienced significantly different 2014 campaigns. For Vettel, it has been a steady decline from his period of domination. For Alonso, it has been another testing year in second-rate machinery. For Bottas, it has been a year of proving his talent. And yet, despite the different paths these three drivers have taken, they have just three points separating them heading to the Abu Dhabi. If we are to look back and recount the memorable nose-to-tail battles for points at Austin, Silverstone and Interlagos to name but a few, we can fully expect another titanic fight in the desert on Sunday evening in the fight for fourth in the championship.
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