Thus the Ferrari driver arrived in the desert state as hottest favourite in a four-way title showdown, with PUMA’s partner team in a state of high alert. History shows that he was unable to pass a slower car ahead for lap upon excruciating lap after a pit stop due to a combination of 2010 aerodynamics and circuit design.
When a driver as relentless as Fernando, who has overtaken the world’s best in the sport’s most challenging corners, proves unable to overtake a slower combination for over 30 laps despite a title being at stake, something is clearly amiss; equally clearly the issue does not lie in the cockpit.
Still, the title was gone (to Sebastian Vettel), and this weekend Fernando and Ferrari returned to the scene of their defeat with some bitter memories. Compounding the matter was that sitting in his trophy cabinet in his hometown of Oviedo in Andalucía is a top three trophy from every grand prix circuit upon which Fernando has raced - except Abu Dhabi. Clearly some unfinished business lay in store at the futuristic Yas Marina Circuit.
It is no secret that this year’s Ferrari is not on par with the Red Bulls and McLarens, yet the Spaniard remains in contention for this year’s best-of-the-rest title behind Vettel, laying third in the title hunt going to Abu Dhabi. With the championship gone, his focus during the weekend was the runners-up prize.
To postpone the outcome to Sao Paulo in a fortnight Fernando needed to at least finish on the podium; if Jenson Button scored better than a dozen points more than Fernando, the consolation prize was gone. All weekend he was a man on a mission, and never more so than when the lights extinguished.
From fifth on the grid he first forced his way past Mark Webber’s (faster) Red Bull, then set his sights on Button’s McLaren, taking him with a risky move before the opening lap was done. Meantime Vettel had suffered an instantaneous puncture in his right rear tyre, which critically damaged his Red Bull. Thus it was three down, one – Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren - to go. All within the opening lap.
A high-speed game of cat-and-mouse followed. For lap after lap Fernando shadowed Lewis; then, when it came to their second stops Fernando delayed his in the hope of using clean air ahead to close the gap. Alas, he came upon a slow car in the pit lane as he peeled in, then a wheel nut jammed. As Fernando exited the pit lane, Lewis was 100 metres up the road. Fernando rolled back to secure a podium trophy for second; ‘could have’ sprang to mind…
That his first Abu Dhabi podium meant much to him was evident during the post-race media scrum:
“I am pleased with this result: finally my podium trophy collection is complete! I have seventy-three top three finishes, and have managed to stand on the podium of all the circuits that have been on the Formula 1 calendar over the past ten years. Next year, we go to Austin (US) and the year after to Russia, so there will always be new challenges to tackle and objectives to reach even if, obviously, the main one is always to win the title. It’s clear what will be the objective for all the team and I next year: winning the title.
Which would still make Fernando the sport’s youngest-ever triple champion. In the meantime the 2011 FIA Formula 1 World Championship runners-up trophy remains up for grabs in Brazil. Don’t bet against it going to Oviedo…