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F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: Max Verstappen wins season finale

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen ended the most dominant season in Formula 1 history with victory in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, his 19th win in 22 races.

The comfortable victory, after brushing off a brief challenge from Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc on the opening lap, gives Verstappen an 86.4% win rate in 2023.

Red Bull’s Sergio Perez took second on the road after Leclerc let him by on the penultimate lap in a vain attempt to secure second in the constructors’ championship for Ferrari against Mercedes, but was demoted to fourth on the road by a five-second penalty.

That promoted George Russell to third for Mercedes and, with Lewis Hamilton securing two points for ninth place, that was enough to keep Mercedes in second place by three points.

Leclerc’s strategy had been to let Perez by in the hope that Mexican, on fresher tyres, could build enough of a lead to negate his penalty, imposed for a collision with McLaren’s Lando Norris.

But Perez did not quite make it, and he dropped down to be classified 1.1 seconds behind Russell.

Leclerc could have chosen to back right off on the last lap and delay Russell further in the hope that could make the difference, but continued to drive at his pace.

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said: “At the end, he could have pulled the handbrake on in the last sector and I think that shows the character of a driver.”

The scant consolation for Leclerc was that he vaulted both Norris and his team-mate Carlos Sainz to take fifth in the drivers’ championship behind Verstappen, Perez, Hamilton and Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso.

But Leclerc had said before the race that he did not care about that – and his face betrayed as much whilst he waited for the post-race interviews, his disappointment at the constructors’ result plain to see.

Norris was fifth ahead of team-mate Oscar Piastri, with Alonso seventh ahead of Alpha Tauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, Hamilton and the second Aston Martin of Lance Stroll.

Abu Dhabi GP

The season finale in Abu Dhabi takes place at dusk

Verstappen’s incredible season

Russell said he was delighted to secure the position for Mercedes. “It means a lot to everyone back at the factory after a difficult season,” he said. “I am really happy to sure second.”

Leclerc said: “Checo had a five-second penalty so we had to help him to finish in front of George, so I tried to give him the DRS and slipstream but unfortunately it was not enough.”

He said he was happy Ferrari had been the second fastest car in Abu Dhabi, disappointed to lose out on second in the championship but proud of the team for recovering strongly after they started the season with a difficult car.

Verstappen said: “An incredible season. I was a little emotional on the in-lap – it is the last time I am sitting in the car which has given me a lot.

“I am proud to win the last race. It was an incredible year. It will be hard to do something similar again.

“We are working hard again to have a very competitive car. The other teams will be trying to beat us but we are ready for the challenge.”

It had been known since Brazil two races ago that Verstappen would finish the season with a better win percentage than the previous record of 75% set by Alberto Ascari in 1952. But to beat that by more than 10% underlines the scale of his achievement this year.

How the race unfolded

Verstappen’s victory was never in doubt – and surely would not have been even had Leclerc managed to get ahead of the Red Bull on a feisty opening lap.

The Ferrari driver challenged into the first corner after making a better start than Verstappen, before backing out of a move, and again into Turns Six and Seven, where again the world champion fended him off.

Leclerc then settled into securing second place, knowing he faced a fight with the McLarens and Russell.

Lando Norris passed Russell at the start to run in fourth behind Verstappen, Leclerc and the other McLaren of Oscar Piastri in the early laps.

But Norris and Russell soon passed Piastri and then made their first pit stops on lap 14, when a slow stop for Norris vaulted Russell ahead.

Once in front, the Mercedes was faster, and the top four positions looked locked in until Perez’s recovery drive came into focus.

The Mexican had started ninth after losing his fastest qualifying lap to a track limits infringement but Red Bull used two long first stints, stopping later than their rivals at both stops to give him a tyre advantage in the final stint.

Perez rejoined behind Leclerc, Russell and Norris, but hauled them all in over the final 10 laps or so.

His penalty came as a result of an incident on lap 47, 11 laps from the end, when he tried to pass Norris at the end of the first long straight.

Norris gave him room but Perez ran deep into the corner and the two cars collided.

Norris complained over the radio that Perez had driven into him, and the stewards deemed that Perez had caused a collision and awarded the penalty on which ultimately rested the destiny of $10m of prize money.

After the race, the McLaren driver said: “I tried to let him past. I was like four car lengths away from the apex, and somehow he still crashed into me. Impressive.”

McLaren were disappointed not to achieve their pre-race aim of a podium, with Piastri starting third and Norris fifth, but their car simply did not have the pace to compete with the Ferrari and Mercedes in front.

Their consolation was that the result was more than enough to secure them fourth in the constructors’ championship ahead of Aston Martin.

Tsunoda drove a strong race on a one-stop strategy in the upgraded Alpha Tauri and even had a period in the lead as the front-running cars made their first pit stops.

But as his tyres wore in the closing laps, he was powerless to hold off Alonso’s charge, although he did manage to stay just over a second ahead of Hamilton, who was slightly hampered by front wing damage caused by running into the back of Pierre Gasly’s Alpine early in the race. –