Why Abu Dhabi consistently delivers the dullest F1 season finales
Fireworks go off as race winner Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Aston Martin Red Bull Racing RB16 crosses the line during the F1 Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi at Yas Marina Circuit on December 13, 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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As the chequered flag concluded the 2020 Abu Dhabi grand prix on 13 December 2020, sighs of relief were uttered all around the F1 paddock.
Not just at the thought of surviving the most condensed, bizarre and most demanding F1 campaign in history, but in celebration of having stayed awake during the most mind-numbing, soul-destroying 96 minutes of the entire year.
While on the one hand, perhaps it is apt that a season so uncontested and devoid of compulsion would appropriately wrap up with a whimper rather than a bang, in truth, the Yas Marina circuit has only delivered utterly forgettable races with metronomic consistency since its inception in 2009.
There are ironies aplenty. Built at a cost of $1.3 billion, the 5.5-km circuit with its 21 medium- and low-speed turns has been the most expensive entrant on the calendar and turns into a catwalk for F1 cars to strut on under a floodlit nightfall. But much like a fashion parade is processional, gutsiness takes a back seat to glitziness. (There were just six overtakes in 2020). Equally, it boggles the mind that a track that can sprawl across all the vastness only a desert can offer, is so incestuously serpentine in its design that it chokes any prospect of close racing.
Cue the 2010 season finale when Fernando Alonso lost the championship in his rookie year at Ferrari through the inability to pass Vitaly Petrov’s slower Renault. This incident was one of the key factors that led to the introduction of the Drag Reduction System (DRS) a year later.
How can a track be so decidedly anti-overtaking?
There are several reasons – some to do with safety, some with physics and others experiential, but together they contrive to form the deadliest dish of dreariness. For starters, there are no fast corners that lead into long overtaking-enabling straights. Instead, Yas Marina’s two successive DRS-enabled straights both end in a chicane that tends to cancel each other out, so that when a driver is passed on the first straight, he simply retakes his previous position on the following one.
(In its defence, the chicane at corners five and six that precede the stadium section was only introduced at the behest of the FIA on safety grounds in light of the fear of cars approaching a spectator-packed grandstand at high speed.)
From there, it gets progressively worse. Corners 11 to 21 are nearly all closely bunched 90-degree turns that, in light of the turbulent wake generated by F1 cars, only serve to destroy the following car’s front-end grip, up to those even five seconds behind. These corners are atrophied by their off-camber construction aimed to punish mistakes by causing cars’ outer rear tyres to break traction while squabbling for grip when running off-line. The result is as unsurprising as it is disappointing, or as Kimi Räikkönen once said, “the first few turns are quite good, but the rest of it is shit.”
One thing that Yas Marina has made cool is that BMW adopted the name of the track’s trademark teal-painted runoff sections as a colour option upon the introduction of the F80-generation M3/M4 in 2014. What’s less cool – other than the Chinese carmaker GWM allegedly doing a “BWM” by also releasing its own eponymous attempt at personal mobility that same year and trying to cash in on the German manufacturer’s hallowed cachet – is that these runoffs offer zero peril or penalty for errors or transgressions, and are evidence of the fact that jeopardy remains F1’s most treasured (and now sadly missing) asset. There are other factors at play, too. Yas Marina unleashes eternal damnation upon F1’s troublesome Pirellis through its high-degradation, low-wear surface that, as evidenced in 2020, encourages drivers to immediately dump their flaky qualifying rubber and switch to the hardest possible compound before conserving them to ensure they reach the flag. Which is safely and predictably executed, because it never rains at Yas Marina. One only needs to look back to the Turkish, Portuguese or Nürburgring rounds of 2020 to prove how inclement weather or out-of-bounds track temperatures can shake up a race.
Money over matter
Yet ostensibly, Yas Marina as a track’s most significant – and hardest to counter – drawback isn’t physical, but existential in nature. Formula One is built on tradition: no matter how merry its fly-away, end-of-year festival feel; how flashy the fireworks, or Instagramable the sunset shots snapped of the purple-hued Viceroy Hotel that straddles the final third of the track, the fact remains that Yas Marina – and the countless equivalents in equally obscure countries that F1 is fleeing towards from its European once heartland – simply lacks the motorsport heritage and atmosphere to elevate it above the status of anonymous and sterile Tilkedrome (so-christened after its designer and F1 fans’ favourite voodoo doll, Hermann Tilke).
As a host track that pays F1 a premium to ensure it gets to bookend the season (and in the hope of the title chase then still being alive), it invites extra scrutiny as fans look forward to witnessing epic gladiatorial skirmishes at a suitable Colosseum, not a wake around a medical laboratory with a pre-determined outcome on Saturday afternoon.
Unfortunately, the Abu Dhabi race, while not alone in this predicament, has, over time, only perfected the art of tempering expectation; when races are best approached with hope instead of anticipation.
Old-school circuits like Suzuka and Interlagos are steeped in history and where rain and unpredictability often influence outcomes and have been monuments to nail-biting championship-deciders when minor mistakes were paid for with big penalties. Even Singapore’s Marina Bay street circuit – as the original F1 night race venue – demands infinitely more of the drivers, puts on a sprightlier show than its mid-Eastern counterpart and would make for a more fitting and gripping showdown stopover. For Abu Dhabi to retain some form of credibility, it should either be moved to a less demanding slot on the calendar where its mediocrity can be easier overlooked; or be torn down and reconfigured.
Thankfully it’s a nearly a full year before you’ll have to endure it again.