Two-time world champion Max Verstappen claimed 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 headed into retirement with a point.
The 25-year-old Verstappen dominated from start to finish, but he was unable to assist his Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez in his bid to beat Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and take second place behind him in the drivers’ title championship.
Leclerc, driving with great precision and awareness, made his one-stop strategy succeed by resisting Perez, on fresher tyres after two stops, in the closing laps to confirm Ferrari finished second in the constructors’ contest as he did in the drivers’.
Carlos Sainz came home 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 retirement-bound four-time champion Vettel was 10th in his final race, for Aston Martin.
“I wish it would have been a couple more points,” said the retiring German driver.
“A big 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 heads into F1’s sunset with four drivers’ world titles, 53 race wins, 57 pole positions and a chorus of tributes ringing in his ears.
Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton, who ran in third despite struggling with his Mercedes for much of the race, retired in the closing laps with hydraulics problems.
Hamilton, who lost out on an eighth world title in last year’s controversial climax on this track, has ended a season for the first time without a win.
Verstappen’s win was a third in succession in Abu Dhabi and the 35th of his career. His engineer came over the team radio telling the Dutch driver his twilight drive at the Yas Marina circuit had been “sublime”.
But it was Leclerc who cried with relief as he crossed the line. “Yes, baby, we got it,” he said. “Good job guys, really good race.”
After another hot day, the contest began with temperatures falling from 28 degrees as Alpha Tauri gave the departing Pierre Gasly a guard of honour as Aston Martin offered Vettel a cake ahead of his final race.
‘Free to race’
Verstappen made a clean start to lead from a thrusting Perez.
Hamilton struggled to shake off Sainz and, as the Spaniard forced his way by, took to a run-off area to avoid a collision, moving up to fourth. The stewards cleared Sainz of any misdemeanour, leaving the Briton to give the place back.
By lap five, Hamilton had found his way back and passed Sainz in the chicane, but again struggled to pull clear, complaining his car was damaged as he rode the kerbs on the opening 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 forlorn plea as Sainz passed Hamilton again at Turn Nine on lap eight.
“You’re free to race,” Russell’s engineer responded when asked and he swiftly passed his team-mate for fifth. Hamilton was clearly struggling for speed on the straights.
By lap 15, Verstappen led by 5.7 ahead of Perez, who was 1.3 clear of Leclerc as the first round of pit stops began.
Russell’s stop was delayed by three seconds and he swerved out across Norris’s McLaren, a reckless move that cost him a five-second penalty for an unsafe release.
By 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, meanwhile, in his last outing with Alpine before succeeding old friend and rival Vettel at Aston Martin, was called in 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 ageing rubber before Perez fought through to regain third on lap 46.
With ten laps to go, he was nine seconds adrift of Leclerc, setting up a tense finale as he sought to stay ahead of the charging Mexican on worn tyres as Hamilton slowed and retired with a hydraulics problem.