The first-ever F1 race at the newly-built Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi is likely to be as notable for its farewells as for its new beginning.
A number of drivers are departing for a new future elsewhere in 2010. They include Fernando Alonso, leaving the team with which he won two world championships, in order to drive with Ferrari and surely hopeful of a highly successful season.
Kimi Raikkonen says goodbye to Ferrari and hello to an uncertain future. While initially strongly touted to drive for McLaren, that team seems unwilling to meet his financial demands, with Mercedes’ motorsport director Norbert Haug offering him a strong rebuke this week for caring more about money than a race-winning car.
It appears once again that a rally team could be his most likely destination for 2010.
Nico Rosberg has announced he is leaving Williams, adding to the likelihood that Rubens Barrichello will be driving his last for Brawn GP when he attempts to beat off Sebastian Vettel’s challenge for second place in the drivers’ championship.
Rosberg is thought to be going wherever Mercedes consider him best deployed, which could mean either a silver or an acid yellow-and-white livery for him next year. If it is silver, and Barrichello also goes to Williams, then we could yet be looking at a surprise vacancy at Brawn for what could be one of the most desirable seats of the year.
Robert Kubica is leaving BMW Sauber for Renault, amid uncertainty about that team’s future, while Timo Glock appears to already have officially separated from Toyota under the circumstances of a spinal injury that prevents him from competing. He is currently tipped as Kubica’s team-mate.
Drivers who may well be judged surplus to requirements by their existing team, and therefore potentially racing their last at Yas Marina, include Heikki Kovalainen at McLaren, Romain Grosjean at Renault, Kazuki Nakajima at Williams and Jarno Trulli at Toyota.
Nick Heidfeld says he is confident of a drive next year but, if he is pinning his hopes on the reborn Sauber team gaining an entry, he could yet be disappointed. It may be that Peter Sauber’s team is finally saying its goodbye to F1 at this race as well.
What of the circuit? Well, it is reputed to have avoided many of the pitfalls of modern Tilke-designed tracks.
Rather than being flat, tame and playing to half-empty stands we are told it will feature gradient, economical run-off areas that will force drivers to keep their wits about them at all times or face the penalty, and capacity crowds – though that is less of a challenge than it might at first appear when the place only admits 50,000.
All of which sounds promising. And, despite both season titles being decided, there’s still a fair bit to play for with McLaren and Ferrari slugging it out for third place in the constructors’ championship and the abovementioned battle between Barrichello and Vettel.
And, with Button crowned as 2009 champion, no less than four title-winners will be lining up on the grid for the start of the race.
The 3.4-mile circuit, on the eastern side of Abu Dhabi, is on Yas Island around 30 minutes from Abu Dhabi city and running alongside a new marina complex.
It is an anti-clockwise circuit and is said to include many unique features including a pitlane exit which crosses under the circuit and part of the track passing under the Yas Marina Hotel.
Abu Dhabi will be staging Formula One’s first twilight race with the event starting at 5pm local time and taking place under floodlights.
McLaren: It’s still game on
Lewis Hamilton has already said that is aiming to push his successor to the drivers’ title as hard as he can in Abu Dhabi, saying he would love for the two of them to deliver a one-two finish for the British fans.
Talking about his mindset going into the race, he added: “We’ve had a fantastic second half of the season, and it would be perfect to end the year with a win, it would send us into the winter fully motivated and pumped up for the 2010 season.
“All the signs point to Abu Dhabi being another strong track for us. There are plenty of slow corners leading onto long straights, where KERS will be very advantageous.
“Seeing as it’s likely to be the last race for KERS, it would be fantastic to send it off with a perfect result, that would be a very fitting farewell for all the engineers who have worked so hard to make the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes system the best in the business.”
Team principal Martin Whitmarsh said: “We may have just overhauled Ferrari in Brazil to move into third place in the constructors’ championship. But being just one point ahead, with just one race remaining, means that we go into the Abu Dhabi weekend fully focused on scoring the maximum possible points to consolidate that position.
“As usual, there has been no let-up from the team in its preparations. We head to Abu Dhabi not only extremely encouraged by the improved pace we showed in Brazil but also very optimistic that the final race of the season offers us another opportunity to challenge for victory.”
Brawn GP: Inevitably an anticlimax
For Brawn GP the Abu Dhabi race could not be anything but an anticlimax – but the team still has work to do to wrap up its season.
Team principal Ross Brawn said: “Brazil was a fantastic weekend and to have won the constructors’ and drivers’ championships with Brawn GP is a very special achievement. I am incredibly proud of the whole team at Brawn GP and Mercedes-Benz High Performance Engines.
“We’ve all had a few busy days since returning to the UK and it was great for both Jenson and I to get back to the factory and thank everyone in person for their contribution to our successes. At the same time, we have been looking ahead to the final race and ensuring that all our preparations are in place for Abu Dhabi.”
He said it would be an important weekend for the team as it looked to secure second position in the drivers’ championship for Rubens Barrichello.
“The new Yas Marina Circuit looks extremely impressive and we’re looking forward to getting out to Abu Dhabi and having our first look at the track.
“With the challenge of a new circuit, we are able to use data provided by the FIA to create a circuit map which can be used in our simulator at the factory. We went through this process for the new street circuits in Valencia and Singapore last year so it is a process that the team is familiar with.
“Knowing the circuit when they arrive helps the drivers to get into a rhythm quickly during the first practice sessions and allows us to check gear ratios and compare set-up items.
“We can also use the simulator to understand tyre behaviour. From this we get an understanding of the car balance and that allows us to determine our start set-up for the weekend.”
Newly-crowned drivers’ champion Jenson Button added: “It’s a fantastic feeling to be going into the final race having achieved my ambition of winning.
“We want to finish the season in style with a great result but we can be a little more relaxed in our approach to the weekend.
“I had a short break in the Gulf region after the Bahrain Grand Prix and went to have a look at the Yas Marina Circuit. Even back then, when the construction work was still underway, the facilities looked outstanding and the organisers have done a great job in creating a spectacular venue.
“It’s always fun to try a new race track, particularly one which looks as unique as Yas Marina with the unusual pitlane exit and the day/night race. I’m sure Abu Dhabi is going to host an exciting weekend and a great finale to the 2009 Formula One season.”