It was no surprise to see Red Bull driver Max Verstappen end his dominant 2023 season with one more victory in Abu Dhabi, his 19th win in 22 races, completing a new all-time Formula 1 record.
It was a measured performance by the three-time world champion who looked focussed on tyre and car management, but always staying out of reach of his nearest challenger who was Ferrari's Charles Leclerc.
George Russell survived a late threat from Sergio Perez to claim a podium, which in turn was enough for Mercedes to hold on to the runners-up spot in the constructors championship. McLaren similarly beat Aston Martin to P4 and Williams took P7 in the standings over AlphaTauri.
With the sun setting over Yas Marina and the floodlights dutifully taking over illumination duties, Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc led the field to the grid for the start of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. They and all the cars in the top ten were starting on medium tyres with just Lance Stroll (P13), Carlos Sainz (P16) and Valtteri Bottas (p18) trying something different.
When the race lights went out, Verstappen didn't exactly fire away into the first turn but nonetheless judged it well enough to thwart any move Leclerc could try. The Ferrari tried to press the attack again through turn 5 and into turn 6, but once more Verstappen was able to parry and maintain control. Their battle meant that the two McLarens behind them were keeping well in touch, Lando Norris having jumped George Russell who was consequently down to fifth ahead of Yuki Tsunoda and Fernando Alonso, with Pierre Gasly in eighth. Lewis Hamilton had gained two positions at the start to move up to ninth, but on lap 4 Sergio Perez was able to retake the position he had initially ceded to the Mercedes.
Leclerc had tried his best but now fell back from the Red Bull, meaning Oscar Piastri was snapping at his heels. On lap 5, McLaren decided that Norris had the better chance of successfully challenging the Monegasque and implemented team orders to swap their drivers. It left Piastri with his hands full dealing with attacks from Russell, who urgently needed to gain positions to give Mercedes a chance of keeping hold of the runners-up spot over Ferrari in the constructors' championship. However, no matter what Russell threw at him, Piastri held fast in P4 - until lap 11 when Russell was finally able to use DRS to force his way through.
There had been early visits to pit lane for Haas' Kevin Magnussen on lap 6 to drop his starter set of mediums, and by Daniel Ricciardo on lap 8 after reporting to the AlphaTauri pit wall that a discarded tear off had been caught up in his brakes. He also took the opportunity to change to hard tyres. By lap 11, even Verstappen with the advantage of running in clean air at the front was talking about worrying wear to his front right tyre, and he was conspicuously failing to pull away from the pursuing Leclerc as he managed the degradation.
Confirming that tyre wear was higher than expected and that teams might have to consider two-stopping, Alonso was in on lap 13, and Norris and Russell were both in on lap 15. It was a painfully slow stop for Norris which allowed Russell to get out ahead. Hamilton was in on the next lap after sliding into the back of Gasly, only to promptly get into a spat with Gasly's Alpine team mate Esteban Ocon.
Verstappen came in on lap 17 for a decent stop if not exactly the fastest we've seen from the Red Bull mechanics. He came back out on hard tyres in seventh just behind Sainz, who had started on that compound with an extended first stint very much in mind. Leclerc also came in next time by, leaving Tsunoda as the temporary nightwatchman in charge of the race - the first Japanese driver to lead a Grand Prix since Takuma Sato in 2004. His more immediate aim was to amass sufficient points to put AlphaTauri ahead of Williams in the constructors standings, which would be a very nice parting gift to present to his veteran team principal Franz Tost, who departs after this race.
Tsunoda surrendered the lead back to Verstappen on lap 23 and Sainz also finally pitted on lap 24. That left Leclerc in second ahead of Russell who had succeeded in undercutting both Norris and Piastri. Perez was pressing forward in sixth ahead of Alonso, and Hamilton was happier on the hard compound and up to eighth, ahead of Tsunoda once the AlphaTauri came back out and got straight back into the points.
Perez picked off Piastri for fifth down the back straight on lap 29, and Stroll used his fresh set of tyres to make a successful DRS move on Ricciardo for P10 next time by. Ricciardo was then on pit lane for a second service on lap 33, with Gasly also in for new tyres but struggling with damage sustained in two earlier incidents with Hamilton. Norris was in in lap 34 for a smoother, swifter second stop; and Russell boxed on lap 35 to protect against the undercut from Norris, despite having just suggested to the team that a one-stopper might be better.
Leclerc responded with a stop of his own on lap 36 and a number of further cars including Piastri and Hamilton quickly made the same call. None of this affected the race leader, and after the reshuffle it was still Verstappen firmly in control with an easy eight second (and climbing) lead over Leclerc, Russell and Norris. The McLaren was hit by Perez going into turn 6 on lap 47, and despite surviving the initial onslaught he succumbed to the faster car on the following lap. However the stewards subsequently handed Perez a five second post-race penalty for causing the original collision.
While Verstappen duly processed to victory, Perez made short work of Russell. Leclerc then allowed Perez to take second place: it was no altruistic move, as it was an attempt to give the Red Bull the five second advantage over the Mercedes that Perez needed to deny Russell a podium and crucial championship points.
It proved too little too late, and Russell did indeed join Verstappen and Leclerc on the podium. Behind Perez, McLaren duo Norris and Piastri finished in formation in fifth and sixth followed by Alonso who successfully picked off Tsunoda on the final lap. The final points went to Hamilton and Stroll, meaning that Mercedes had succeeded in narrowly clinging on to second place in the constructors championship ahead of Ferrari after all. McLaren had secured fourth in the standings ahead of Aston Martin while Williams held on to seventh in the standings over AlphaTauri despite finishing out of the points.
Meanwhile the donuts had begun on the main straight. Verstappen was celebrating a stunning success, the Red Bull pit wall confirming that all 2023 mission objectives had been achieved. Their rivals face a cold winter contemplating what to do before Bahrain gets things back up to speed in 97 days' time.