Markelov and Leclerc sweep up in Abu Dhabi
Normally the final weekend of a season goes 1 of 2 ways: either the championship is going down to the wire and everything is pointing to the battle to come, or it’s already decided and everyone can let their hair down, have a free weekend of fun and just race for the sake it. But this weekend in Abu Dhabi was something different: the drivers’ title was already decided but there was still a fight for P2, as well as the teams’ championship to settle. Which made the weekend a little … complex.
On paper, Charles Leclerc had the easiest job in the paddock: his title was in the bag so he could just enjoy his final couple of runs in the car, and if by doing well he helped PREMA take the double then all the better. There was more pressure on rivals Oliver Rowland and Artem Markelov: both men were still fighting for their own ambitions, and the added needs of their respective teams and teammates were additional complications that the Monegasque driver didn’t carry into the weekend.
The shape of the weekend was different too, with more waiting around for the timetable to come to you. Free practice arrived on Friday morning, the heat of the circuit coming on but less intensely than previous years, with all of the drivers heading straight out to make the most of their time on track. Nobuharu Matsushita led the way early in the session, grabbing the first competitive lap time before teammate Albon claimed the top spot 10 minutes in, with Norman Nato stealing it from him 5 minutes later.
With most of the field returning to the pits around the 20 minute mark, Albon was one of the few to remain on track: the Thai driver reclaimed the top spot at the halfway mark before returning to the pits. With the field concentrating on race run data in the second half of the session, the fight for the top spot was over: Albon was on top by over a tenth from Nato and Nyck De Vries.
For the Thai driver it was an indication that things were coming back to him after a tough season: his early form was strong until a broken collarbone put him out of action for a while, with set up changes and an undiagnosed broken chassis after an accident for replacement Sergey Sirotkin meant his year had not gone to plan, until now.
But with all due respect to Albon, most of the attention was elsewhere: in the fight for supremacy between the teams Antonio Fuoco had led the way, finishing the session in P5 for PREMA ahead of Rowland (P6), Markelov (P7), Leclerc (P9) and Nicholas Latifi (P15) before the long wait for qualifying. Normally the teams only have a few hours before the session, doing all the work they can ahead of the weekend to help them be prepared, but with qualy not due until that evening there was a lot of tension in the paddock with nowhere for it to disperse.
And when it finally came, it was Markelov who came to the fore. With the lights blazing overhead all of the drivers bar the ART teammates headed straight out on track, with the DAMS pair coming straight back after scrubbing a set of tyres. The times were soon tumbling but Markelov blew past everyone, annexing P1 by four tenths as most of the field returned to the pits.
The ART and DAMS drivers headed out as their rivals came in to take advantage of the alternate strategy, and with the track to themselves Nobuharu Matsushita grabbed P2, ahead of Rowland (P4), Latifi (P6) and Albon (P8) before the first 3 returned to the pits. But the Thai driver wasn’t satisfied that he had made the most of his tyres, staying out to improve his time and, surprisingly, on his second flyer went faster for P2. But pushing to get back in time to change to his second set came at a cost: he ran out of fuel in the final sector, stopping on track and undoing his good work.
Markelov led his rivals back on track, showing his eagerness to improve on his second set: with 3 minutes remaining they all hit their quick laps and the Russian improved further, with Fuoco slotting in behind him on the timesheets until De Vries crossed the line and stole P2 from him. Rowland put in a late lap to slot into P4, ahead of Leclerc (P6), Luca Ghiotto (P7) and Latifi (P12), with Albon being pushed down to 10th in his absence before disqualification for his inability to provide a fuel sample twisted the knife further.
The Russian could scarcely contain himself after the session: “It feels great actually, and it was really nice to do those laps in the car, this really amazing car. I was feeling great on the track, I was feeling the grip on the kerbs, I am quite happy and I want to say a big thanks to my team because it was a really nice job by everyone today, and in the last race as well.
“I’m fighting for everything, and I’m pretty confident about what will happen tomorrow: hopefully this confidence coming into me will show in my results as well. The key tomorrow is to just save the tyres, and we’ll see what will happen to the other guys around me!”
The points for pole sharpened the fight for the vice-champion spot, with Markelov closing the gap to just 8, and in the teams’ title the battle was white hot, with just 2 points between RUSSIAN TIME, PREMA and DAMS, the Italians leading but wearing a large target on their back with the Russians getting into the driver’s seat.
The feature race was always going to be a technical battle – a change of tyre compound added a wrinkle that the teams would have preferred not to have to iron – but with Markelov on pole and with unquestionable tyre management skills most in the paddock thought they knew how the race would run before we headed to the pitlane under floodlights once more.
And most of the paddock was wrong.
When the (race) lights went out Markelov made a storming start to lead De Vries and Rowland through turn 1, with Fuoco making a poor start and falling behind teammate Leclerc as Ghiotto pushed up to P4, tail gunner for his teammate as everyone waited to see which way the tyre strategies would work: De Vries, Leclerc and Albon started on the alternate (soft) strategy and were pushing to take advantage, while everyone else hung on as long as they could on the supersofts before they could dispose of them and see where they were.
Markelov led his rivals in on lap 7, having absorbed the pressure from De Vries to pit from the lead, emerging just ahead of Rowland. The Briton knew his best chance for the win was right in front of him and he grabbed it, attacking into turn 8 when the Russian was worried about not damaging his tyres, and a couple of fast laps meant he was away as Leclerc, De Vries (who ran too deep under pressure from his rival and had to cede the lead) and Albon (with a strong drive from the back of the grid) worked to minimise the inroads Rowland and Markelov were making on their times.
Leclerc’s older tyres weren’t able to perform miracles, and when they started to lose their edge his pursuers were closing at a second a lap: the question now was how much time would he be able to claw back on the supersofts, and how long would they last? Rowland and Markelov ran like a train by Albon on lap 18 for P3/4, Leclerc and De Vries were in on lap 24 and emerged in P5/6, and there were 7 laps to see how the race would shake out.
A lap later Leclerc was in P3 after stops for others, 14 seconds behind Markelov, and he took 2.5s out of the Russian next time around: Markelov was stuck between a rock and a hard place, wanting to move forward for the win but also watching his mirrors, a small off in the marina complex an outward display of the pressure he was putting himself under. The gap was closing – 8.6s, 6.1s, 4.2s – but on lap 30 it went the other way – 5.3s – and Leclerc’s challenge was over.
But with 2 laps remaining the gap forward was too big, and Rowland duly crossed the line for win number 3 by 6.6s from Markelov, with Leclerc slowing dramatically on the final lap to allow teammate Fuoco to take the podium by just centimetres. It looked like the Briton had one hand on his 2nd place trophy, and the attention turned to the teams’ battle: DAMS were 1st and 7th (31 points), RUSSIAN TIME were 2nd and 5th (28), and PREMA were 3rd and 4th (27) for a 3 point gap between the 3 teams, and the target moving to DAMS.
Having done the hard work for his own ambitions, Rowland was already looking ahead to what he could bring home for the team: “the title is obviously important for them, and you get the status of 1 and 2 on the car next year, which is good bragging rights! Basically for me I wouldn’t be here without DAMS, and I feel I owe them quite a lot: to give them the Teams’ championship would be great, especially with Nicky as well being a good teammate.
“We’ve pushed the team extremely hard this year and they have delivered with the car, especially in the races: everyone will probably have their reasons for their team deserving it and that’s mine, and I’ll do everything I can tomorrow to make sure we do it.”
And then the news came through: Rowland and Fuoco were disqualified, the Briton for a skid block which was too thin, the Italian for low tyre pressures.
It turned the maths, and the weekend, upside down: Markelov was now the winner, his 5th victory of the season, Leclerc was in P2 and Ghiotto rounded out the podium. And with the Russian 17 points ahead and with more wins that Rowland, Markelov was the 2017 vice-champion, while in the teams’ title RUSSIAN TIME were almost certain of victory, 20 points ahead of PREMA with DAMS a further 10 points behind: the Italians would need both drivers to score big points, and their Russian rivals to score none.
Which isn’t how it went, but that didn’t mean there was no drama.
Back to racing during the day and Albon made the most of his front row start, already a great turnaround from his qualy disappointments, by storming into the lead when poleman Jordan King bogged down, with Latifi in hot pursuit as Markelov and Ghiotto chased down Leclerc to finish off the teams’ battle in style: a few laps later the pair swamped King, with the Russian just tagging his rear as the Briton stopped with a puncture, but they were unable to close on Leclerc, who was moving forward himself and looked to close his great season on a high.
As the laps rolled down, so did the scalps for Leclerc – De Vries, Matsushita, Latifi – leaving him 4 laps to close and pass on his GP3 teammate and title rival. Albon was looking for the win to bring home some sort of redemption from a tougher season than he expected, Leclerc was looking for a cherry on the top of his championship cake, and the fight was on.
The Monegasque was clearly faster, putting himself all over the rear of the Thai driver almost immediately, but debris on the straight down to the marina meant yellow flags and no 2nd DRS area, which most of the drivers had been using for passes, handing an advantage to the leader. On the final lap Leclerc, frustrated for a couple of laps, threw his car up the inside into the sharp entry to the long back straight, clattering into Albon and setting up a drag race all the way down to turn 8, with the Monegasque driver on the inside line.
Leclerc needed nothing more, leading Albon to the flag with Latifi a few seconds back, screaming with joy as he crossed the line. He was still overjoyed by the time he hit the press conference: “It feels great to win the race and finish the season on a high, and I think it’s been one of the most positive races I’ve had during the year: on tyre management we’ve been very good today, and I feel even happier when I look back to Friday and we were struggling: we have done a massive step forward and were one of the most competitive today.”
And with that, the season was over: the 2017 champion signed off his season with a win after dominating the championship ahead of Markelov and Rowland, while RUSSIAN TIME took the teams’ title ahead of PREMA and DAMS, all of them celebrating into the wee hours with a few days to rest before 2018 comes calling in the form of the post season test, later in the week.