Two-time world champion Max Verstappen took a record-extending 15th win this year with a “sublime” performance for Red Bull in Sunday’s tight and strategic Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as Sebastian Vettel retired by one point. The 25-year-old Verstappen dominated from start to finish, but he couldn’t help his Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez in his bid to beat Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc to finish second in the Drivers’ Championship behind him.
Leclerc, driving with great precision and awareness, made sure his one-stop strategy succeeded by resisting Perez, on fresher tires after two stops, in the closing laps to confirm that Ferrari finished second in the constructors’ race, just like the drivers.
Carlos Sainz was fourth in the second Ferrari ahead of Mercedes’ George Russell, Lando Norris of McLaren, Esteban Ocon of Alpine and Lance Stroll of Aston Martin.
Daniel Ricciarcdo finished ninth in the second McLaren and retired four-time champion Vettel was tenth in his last race, ahead of Aston Martin.
“I wish it had been a few more points,” said the retired German driver.
“A great day, thank you for all the support and the smiling faces. I’m sure I’m going to miss more than I can imagine,” added Vettel, who enters F1’s sunset with four world driver titles, 53 race wins. 57 pole positions and a chorus of tributes ringing in his ears.
Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton, who finished third despite struggling with his Mercedes for much of the race, retired in the closing laps with hydraulic problems.
Hamilton, who lost an eighth world title at this circuit at last year’s controversial climax, has finished a season without a win for the first time.
Verstappen’s victory was the third in a row in Abu Dhabi and the 35th of his career. His engineer came over the team radio to say that his twilight ride at the Yas Marina circuit had been “sublime”.
But it was Leclerc who cried with relief when he crossed the line. “Yes, honey, we got it,” he said. “Well done guys, really good race.”
After another hot day, the race started with temperatures dropping from 28 degrees as Alpha Tauri gave the outgoing Pierre Gasly a guard of honor while Aston offered Martin Vettel a cake ahead of his final race.
‘Free to race’
Verstappen made a clean start and led from a bumping Perez.
Hamilton struggled to shake off Sainz and, as the Spaniard worked his way through, moved into a run-off area to avoid a collision and moved up to fourth. The stewards cleared Sainz of any crime and left the Briton to return the seat.
By lap five, Hamilton had found his way back and passed Sainz at the chicane, but again struggled to get away, complaining that his car was damaged when he went over the curb on the first lap.
Russell, sixth behind Sainz, told the team that “Lewis needs to pick up the pace… We can beat the Ferraris”, but it was a lost case as Sainz passed Hamilton again at turn nine on lap eight.
“You’re free to race,” Russell’s engineer replied when asked and quickly passed his teammate for fifth. Hamilton was clearly struggling for speed on the straights.
On lap 15, Verstappen led 5.7 ahead of Perez, who was 1.3 ahead of Leclerc when the first round of pit stops began.
Russell’s stop was delayed by three seconds and he swerved over Norris’ McLaren, a reckless move that cost him a five-second penalty for an unsafe release.
On lap 32 the leaders were back in team order with Verstappen ahead of Perez, Leclerc and Sainz with Russell fifth ahead of a recovering Hamilton.
Fernando Alonso, on his last outing with Alpine before succeeding old friend and rival Vettel at Aston Martin, was forced to retire on lap 25 with a mechanical problem, not his first this year.
As Perez, Sainz and Russell pitted again, Verstappen continued to dominate from Leclerc and Hamilton, all three on aging rubber before Perez battled through to finish third on lap 46.
With ten laps to go he was nine seconds behind Leclerc, making for a thrilling finale as he tried to get ahead of the attacking Mexican on worn tires as Hamilton slowed down and retired with a hydraulic problem.
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