It’s all systems go for the Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend with the drivers fired up despite German Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull Racing running away with the championship.
The magnificent Yas Marina Circuit which hosts the only ‘twilight’ race will always remain special for the Vettel who was crowned the youngest Formula One world champion in a thrilling finale last year in the UAE race.
After successfully defending his title to become the youngest double world champion, 24-year-old Vettel will be looking for a hat-trick of triumphs in Abu Dhabi having won the race in the inaugural year as well.
Having powered his Red Bull team to the constructors’ title, Vettel will add spice to the competition by chasing a couple of individual records.
Victory this weekend in Abu Dhabi will leave him needing to take the chequered flag in the final race of the season in Brazil to match Formula One great Michael Schumacher’s record of 13 wins in a season.
Vettel can also equal the record for the most pole positions in a season (14) at the Yas Marina circuit, which he loves despite complaints that there are too few overtaking opportunities.
“The track in Abu Dhabi is special this will be our third Grand Prix there,” Vettel said. “The race starts at dusk and finishes at night, which means we have to drive with special helmet visors because of the different light conditions. The other factor is that we drive anti-clockwise. The track’s a bit like Singapore from the speed, but the asphalt is smoother.”
Vettel will face competition from plenty of drivers looking to prove a point, including his teammate Mark Webber who sits fourth in the drivers’ standings but has yet to win a race this season.
Then there is McLaren’s Jenson Button, who wants to tighten his grip on second with a strong performance since he is only 13 points ahead of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.
“Our car should suit this circuit so I’m very optimistic,” Button said. “We saw at the last grand prix that even though we didn’t have the ultimate speed to catch and pass Sebastian, we made him work hard for the win. The championship may not be at stake any more but we’re still aiming to win races and put on a tremendous show.”
Button’s teammate Lewis Hamilton - who finished second in Abu Dhabi last year - is hoping a victory could erase some of the pain of a season that has been most notable for several mistakes and a running feud with Ferrari driver Felipe Massa.
The Indian Grand Prix last month was typical of Hamilton’s difficult season. He was penalised three grid places for ignoring yellow flags warning drivers to slow down during the practice session and then collided with Massa during the race - the third time he has done that in four races.
“We’ve got every reason to be confident for Abu Dhabi,” Hamilton said. “This circuit should really suit the characteristics of our car.
“I’m still determined to end the season on a winning high. I’ve won two Grands Prix this year, and I’d love to double that by the end of the year.”
Alonso and his Ferrari team will be seeking to erase memories of a nightmare weekend in 2010 when their challenge fizzled out.
The two-time champion was one of four contenders for the drivers’ title, but departed hugely disappointed after failing to find any passing power on his way to seventh.
The spotlight will be on Alonso’s bid to snatch second place in the title race from Button and Webber.
Alonso will also hope he and Ferrari team-mate Brazilian Felipe Massa can help the tifosi forget last year’s embarrassing flop.
Ferrari chief Stefano Domenicali reflected the team’s mood when he said: “In the remaining two races, we want to try and get on the podium and try all we can to get Fernando to second place in the drivers’ classification.
“We will fight hard, as much as we can, for that goal.”
Schumacher and Alonso, who have nine world titles between them, will also be looking to salvage some pride from what has been an otherwise disappointing season.
In his second season since coming out of retirement, seven-time world champion Schumacher has five DNFs, the most recent when he crashed out of the Korean Grand Prix.
But the Mercedes driver rebounded to finish fifth at the Indian Grand Prix and is only five points behind his teammate Nico Rosberg in the drivers’ championship.
Alonso came into last year’s race as the points leaders and appeared poised to win the championship. But an ill-timed pitstop by Ferrari to change tyres backfired. The Spaniard got stuck behind Renault’s Vitaly Petrov and finished seventh.
That caused much argument about the lack of overtaking opportunities on the Yas Marina track, but the introduction this year of the DRS zone, and the reintroduction of KERS creates speed differentials that should allow passing.
“It’s usually been quite difficult to overtake here, especially last year, but I think that DRS will change all that,” Button said. “The back straight is one of the longest in Formula 1 so I expect to see a lot of action there. It would be great to see the new rules turn this circuit into a place where overtaking is more common and more exciting.”
Alonso is third in the drivers’ standing but has only won once. A late season surge that got him back into contention in 2010 never materialised this year and Ferrari has struggled to keep pace with the faster Red Bull.
Alonso may be helped this year by the encouragement of race director Charlie Whiting who has suggested that, after the problems in overtaking last year, the drivers will enjoy themselves this time thanks to the introduction of two Drag Reduction System (DRS) zones on the circuit.
“The race came in for a bit of criticism last year because the cars found it very difficult to overtake,” said Whiting.
“But there are two DRS zones this year, with two activation points, and they should make a significant difference in that respect.”
Alonso, in particular, will be hoping to avoid finding himself stuck behind a Renault, or more precisely the Renault of Russian Vitaly Petrov who held him up last year for most of the race after questionable strategy had apparently spoiled his race.
Domenicali said he believed Alonso would also gain extra motivation from his return to Abu Dhabi, scene of his failure a year ago.
“I am sure that, in the next few days, going back to Abu Dhabi will have an effect on Fernando, given what happened there last year, but this negative emotion will be a further incentive for him to turn things around in 2012.”
Alonso has some work to do to stop Button taking the runners-up spot. Button has 240 points with two races remaining - in Abu Dhabi and then in Brazil - while Alonso has 227 and Webber 221.
Button’s McLaren team-mate and compatriot Lewis Hamilton has 202.
Meanwhile, organised announced that during Thursday’s pre-event Pit Lane Walk, 3-day ticket holders for this year’s Grand Prix will not only be given the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at the team garages, they will also get the opportunity to meet some of the championship’s leading drivers.
From the Scuderia Ferrari team, two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and 2008 runner-up Felipe Massa will be signing autographs in the F1 Village behind the Main Grandstand from 2-2:20pm.
Following this session, seven-time F1 World Champion Michael Schumacher and fellow Mercedes GP Petronas driver, Nico Rosberg, will be signing autographs from 3-3:20pm.
“We cannot wait to open the gates for this year’s Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the Pit Lane Walk is a great way to kick-off the festivities at the circuit,” said Mark Hughes, Director of Operations at Yas Marina Circuit. “The pit walk gives race-goers the chance to see how much work goes into preparing the cars. And, it is far from every day that you get the opportunity to meet such legends as Schumacher and Alonso.”
Yas Marina Circuit’s gates will open at 12pm on Thursday and the Pit Lane Walk will commence at 2pm. In addition, Circuit TV will broadcast live between 2:30pm and 3:15pm, with F1 pundits Mika Salo and Maurice Hamilton providing insight into this year’s race.
Further autograph sessions with F1 drivers will take place daily in the F1 Village, located in the Main Oasis Area. All session are subject to change, an updated schedule of times and teams will be available daily at www.yasmarinacircuit.ae.