Verstappen scores cruise control victory in Abu Dhabi

Race winner Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB16 celebrates as he passes his team at the end of the race. 13.12.2020. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 17, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
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Max Verstappen put in a peerless performance in the final race of the 2020 season, leading the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix from lights to flag to win by a huge margin over Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton.

The two Mercedes drivers looked strangely subdued throughout, but nonetheless both cars comfortably finished on the podium ahead of Verstappen's Red Bull team mate Alex Albon.

Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz were best of the rest in fifth and sixth to secure third place in the constructors championship for McLaren over Renault and Racing Point, after Sergio Perez was the only retirement of the day.

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB16 leads at the start of the race. 13.12.2020. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 17, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

With the sun setting over Yas Marina, the 20 cars made their way to the grid for the last time in 2020. Red Bull's Max Verstappen led the way on pole for the first time this season, having pipped Mercedes duo Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton to pole position in Saturday's qualifying session. All three were starting the race on the medium compound, with McLaren's Lando Norris the highest starter on softs in fourth.

Verstappen commanded the start and ensured that neither Bottas nor Hamilton were able to make a move into the first corner. Norris tried his best to unsettle Hamilton, but then had to focus on holding off an early attack from Red Bull's Alex Albon. Further back, Esteban Ocon made an early pass on fellow Frenchman Pierre Gasly only to have his good work undone at turn 9 on lap 2. Charles Leclerc also dropped places and found himself in 13th behind his departing Ferrari team mate Sebastian Vettel who had opted to start the race on the hardest compound, as had Daniel Ricciardo just ahead of him.

By the time DRS was enabled, Verstappen had already pulled out of range of Bottas to establish a two and a half second lead, with the Finn enjoying a similar margin over Hamilton who was in turn three seconds ahead of the duelling Norris and Albon. Starting on mediums, Carlos Sainz had settled into sixth ahead of AlphaTauri's soft-shod Daniil Kvyat, with Lance Stroll in eighth followed by Gasly and Ocon.

Lap 7 saw Albon make a neat pass on Norris for fourth at turn 9; when the McLaren attempted to fight back, Albon positioned the Red Bull perfectly to shut the door. Moments later Renault decided to swap their drivers round, ushering Ricciardo ahead of Ocon despite the Aussie being on the nominally slower compound. It was also all-change at AlphaTauri with Gasly making a pass on Kvyat for eighth with a neat move down the inside of turn 11 just after the Russian had also lost position to Stroll.

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB16 leads behind the FIA Safety Car. 13.12.2020. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 17, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Stroll's team mate - last week's race winner Sergio Perez - had been diligently working his way up from a back-row starting position resulting from grid penalty, but on lap 10 the Racing Point suddenly pulled over to the side of the track at turn 19 after reporting a total loss of power with a transmission issue, the second time in three races that the Mexican had been sidelined by mechanical problems. An initial Virtual Safety Car soon became a full safety car amid reports of fluid on the track, and virtually the entire field dived for pit lane with Mercedes pulling off a perfect double-stacking stop just a week after their nightmare mix-up in Sakhir.

Verstappen, Bottas, Hamilton and Albon were now on hard tyres ahead of Ricciardo. He had started on that compound and therefore opted to stay out for a while longer, putting him ahead of Norris who had come in for a change to the most durable tyre. Ferrari had decided not to pit at all, leaving Vettel and Leclerc in seventh and eighth ahead of Sainz and Stroll when the race resumed on lap 14, with Verstappen once again totally in control of the restart.

Ferrari's decision to stay out was soon cast into doubt as Sainz managed to get past first Leclerc and then Vettel to move into seventh place. Leclerc was also picked off by Stroll on lap 19 and then by Gasly next time by, leaving him down in 11th. After that it wasn't long before Ocon was also cruising past, and Leclerc finally gave in to the inevitable by pitting on lap 23. That put him down in last place where his first order of business was to pick off the Haas pairing of Kevin Magnussen and Pietro Fittipaldi and the two Williams of Nicholas Latifi and George Russell.

Lance Stroll (CDN) Racing Point F1 Team RP20. 13.12.2020. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 17, Abu Dhabi Grand Pri

Stroll had been hoping to follow Sainz past Vettel, but when he closed in on the back of the Ferrari on lap 26 he ran deep into turn 10, losing ground and allowing Gasly to catch him. The AlphaTauri eventually sealed the deal and gained the position on lap 31. Gasly then passed Vettel, but Stroll remained pinned in tenth place complaining of a lack of traction, a dreadful turn of events for Racing Point in their fading bid to win third place in the constructors championship from McLaren and Renault, especially with Perez already out of the race. Vettel finally came in for his first and only stop on lap 37, switching to mediums for the final stint and dropping to 15th place behind Leclerc as a result.

At the front, Mercedes seemed to have little answer to the impressive Red Bull pace, confirming the pre-race repoirts that the team had been forced to turn down the power output of the engine MGU-K as a result of reliability concerns. Verstappen had stretched his lead to eight seconds over the two Silver Arrows and was managing the race to perfection, the top three all running at the same speed. However it wasn't quite as smooth sailing as it might have looked, with Verstappen worried about tyre wear after reporting oscillations and vibrations. The Red Bull pit wall reassured him that everything was under control.

Renault finally summoned Ricciardo into pit lane on lap 41, returning to the fray in seventh behind the two McLarens having gone for the sensible medium option rather than risking a gamble on softs. After that a sense of calm descended on pit lane, broken only by a late stop for Magnussen on lap 49 as he presumably set about concluding his F1 career with a long shot attempt at setting the fastest lap of the race, but ultimately the honours were stolen instead by Ricciardo on the last lap.

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB16. 13.12.2020. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 17, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

In the final minutes, Verstappen was confident enough to tell the team that "You can turn the engine down if you want to", and he crossed the line almost 16s ahead of Bottas, Hamilton, Albon, Norris, Sainz, Ricciardo and Gasly. Stroll came under heavy pressure at the end and ended up losing ninth place to Ocon on the last lap. Just missing out on the points were Kvyat and Kimi Raikkonen, followed by another dismal (by their own high standards) effort from Ferrari's Leclerc and Vettel. Russell finished in 15th ahead of Antonio Giovinazzi, and the last cars still running were Latifi, Magnussen and Fittipaldi.

Before heading to parc ferme, several drivers indulged in the post-season tradition of performing donuts on the start/finish straight as fireworks lit up the night sky. It marked the successful conclusion of the 2020 season, somewhat against the odds in light of the coronavirus pandemic. It was a celebration well deserved for all those involved.

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