F1 Abu Dhabi: Midnight Race Predictions and Fuel-Adjusted Grid

What Happens When Everything is Bright, Shiny, New, and the Outcome is Not Yet Determined

12:32am EST — Yet again, the time differences for Formula1 fans in America make it late at night (though not that late when considering the soon to be implemented time change) while early in the morning for Europe, and nearly time to rise for those actually participating in the sport, at the 2009 Abu Dhabi GP.  Sunday’s evening race in the Middle East will have Lewis Hamilton on pole position, leading the Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, while the Brawns of Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button finish out the top five.  Saturday’s qualifying was an accurate portrayal of the transition at the circuit from day into night, with all the lights on while it was still light and keeping everything bright as darkness fell.

As was discussed Saturday when the car weights and projected pit stop times were determined, Hamilton must get a good start and quickly outpace the Red Bulls in order to maintain the lead during the pit stops.  Many drivers whose cars seem to be capable of a one-stop strategy are further back, but have a lot to prove, either because this is the last race for them at their current team (Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso) or because they have no contract for 2010 and must impress during this last race of the season (Heikki Kovalainen, Kamui Kobayashi, Kazuki Nakajima, Tonio Liuzzi, Nick Heidfeld, etc.).  Look for as much dicing as possible, and similar incidents as in Brazil as drivers jockey for position in the 2010 field.

Every car from Raikkonen back, eleventh through twentieth, is capable of a one-stop strategy for the fifty-five lap race.  Lewis Hamilton, who admitted after qualifying that he and McLaren could have been heavier during qualifying, could be overtaken through the race by at least Vettel, if not also by Webber.  Both Brawns will likely stop on the same lap as Hamilton, lap twenty, while Vettel will likely come in on lap twenty-two while teammate Webber stops on lap twenty-one.  The first to stop will likely be Robert Kubica in the BMW-Sauber, while both Renaults will only have to do a short fifteen or sixteen lap stint on the lower-performance tires at the end.

It is unlikely that any sort of weather other than hot and dry conditions will occur during the race, though one might remember the rain-delayed opening race of this MotoGP season, at Losail in Qatar.  Still, the more likely condition to change-up the running order is a safety car.  This is a brand-new circuit, and while the practices and qualifying were uneventful, multiple spins occurred.  In race conditions, these sorts of kinks will be far messier to work out, especially when, as mentioned earlier, at least half the field is looking to impress for a 2010 contract.  Such a safety car will very much disrupt Hamilton’s necessary strategy of a quick getaway from the Red Bulls, as he is lighter on fuel.  Keep a watchful eye on rookie Kobayashi, as he showed he does not care who he is fighting with for position two weeks ago in Brazil when attempting to hold off new world champion Button.

If the race is uneventful, or only moderately so, Hamilton has a very high chance of being on the top step of the podium, though he could be overtaken in the pits by Vettel, giving the German the win, Hamilton second and Webber third, especially considering the McLaren’s speed and the processional nature of Hermann Tilke-designed tracks, as Abu Dhabi is.  If there is a safety car or more, the outcome of the race is anyone’s guess.  Alonso, in a horrible fifteenth starting position, is very heavy and could manage a reverse Singapore 2008 (minus, of course, the purposeful teammate-into-the-wall bit), going for a very long first stint and passing as many cars as possible in the not-too-fast Renault, then popping into the pits for a quick stop and the mandatory tire change, to finish in at least the top five.  That outcome, though similar to Button’s in Brazil, is unlikely, if only because of the probability that he will be caught, yet again, in a first-turn smash-up.  Another driver or two to watch will be those in the championship-winning cars.  Both Barrichello and Button seem likely to stop on the same lap as Hamilton, and both are hungry for a rewarding end to a rewarding (or bittersweet) 2009 season.  Button qualified badly due to a vibration in a tire, but will be encouraged to give this race his all in an effort to cap his championship with a win.  The only difficulty both driver face is that their cars still do not respond well to lowering temperatures, and the heat of day will give way to the cool of night halfway through the race.

With everything to gain, and a lot to lose, both the circuit promoters and the drivers themselves have promised an exciting race at a shiny, new venue.  Racing begins at 5pm local time, and the winner is, as yet, undetermined.


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