It’s hard to believe we’re at the end of the 2023 F1 season, but with only the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to come this weekend, it’s time to bring the F1 circus to a close.
That means one more ‘top 5 races’ article to bring you as we go over the history of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The Yas Marina Circuit hasn’t exactly produced the greatest races we’ve ever seen in Formula 1, but there are a few examples of some outstanding races at one of the most spectacular looking circuits on the calendar.
First held in 2009, it has appeared on the F1 calendar every year since for a total of 14 races. Of those 14 races, 11 have been the season finale, and it has held that slot every year since 2014.
If you’re a Mercedes or Red Bull fan, you’ve enjoyed the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, with both teams taking six wins each at the circuit. The only other two teams to taste success in Abu Dhabi are McLaren in 2011 and Lotus in 2012, with no other team besides Red Bull or Mercedes having won at the circuit in 11 years.
For Australia it hasn’t been a happy hunting ground, with no wins by an Aussie driver at Yas Marina. The best finish by an Aussie was in 2009 & 2013 when Mark Webber finished second behind teammate Sebastian Vettel in both races.
So with all that out of the way, which five races have stood the test of time in Abu Dhabi? Let’s find out.
5. 2011 – Winner: Lewis Hamilton (McLaren)
2011 was a surprise win for Lewis Hamilton, then still driving for McLaren. Sebastian Vettel had won the first two editions of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and took pole in 2011 in a season that he had dominated with 11 wins in 17 races to that point.
That was thrown away after two corners though as Vettel suffered a puncture, opening up the race entirely.Hamilton took the lead and was being chased hard by the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso, who himself had made up ground on the first lap by overtaking the Red Bull of Mark Webber and McLaren of Jenson Button.
Try as Alonso might, he just couldn’t find a way past Hamilton for the win, with Lewis taking the crown and giving McLaren their only win ever in Abu Dhabi.
The race is also memorable for the strong drive by Japanese cult hero Kamui Kobayashi, who went from 16th to tenth to score a much-needed point for Sauber.
4. 2016 – Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
A tactical race that is best remembered for some strong radio messages by Lewis Hamilton to his team that saw his then teammate Nico Rosberg win his first and only World Championship that ultimately turned out to be his final ever race.
Just like it was in 2014, both Mercedes drivers went into the race battling for the title. Rosberg needed simply needed to finish on the podium to win, while Hamilton had to win the race with Rosberg finishing in fourth or lower. Pole to Hamilton ahead of his teammate on Saturday helped him towards that target.
Hamilton took the lead from Rosberg at the start with Rosberg following behind and avoiding any risk in a cautious drive. Max Verstappen meanwhile spun on the opening lap but stormed his way through the field to second place on a one stop strategy that until lap 20, held up Rosberg and gave Hamilton the advantage.
However, in a crucial move for the Championship, Rosberg stormed his way past the Red Bull and back into second on lap 20, a place he wouldn’t give up until the end of the race.
Hamilton then forcefully drove slower in an attempt to bunch the field up to allow cars behind Rosberg to pass him to give him the Championship, a move that angered Mercedes in a battle of radio exchanges between the team and driver.
It was a smart move by Hamilton but one that wouldn’t pay off. Rosberg held on to second to win the title and promptly hung up his helmet for good and left the sport on the ultimate of highs.
3. 2012 – Winner: Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus)
Just leave Kimi alone, he knows what he is doing.
In what was his first win in Formula 1 in three years, Kimi Raikkonen drove a strong race in a car that many forget was a bit of a beast across the 2012 season. It was Kimi’s comeback year, having taken both 2010 and 2011 off and showed just what the 2007 World Champion was capable of on his day.
Lewis Hamilton led after the first lap from Raikkonen who had moved from fourth into second after lap 1. When Hamilton retired on lap 18, Raikkonen took the lead.
Pressure soon came from the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso behind him who was in a dogfight with Sebastian Vettel for the Championship, but Raikkonen never faltered and held on to win the race from Alonso and Vettel, who had driven an incredible race from the pit-lane to finish on the podium.
The win was made extra special for two reasons. One, it amazingly kept Raikkonen’s very slim chances of a second Championship alive, and two, it gave us perhaps the greatest ever radio quotes ever heard in the history of Formula 1. A strong drive from a very strong driver.
2. 2021 – Winner: Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
Controversial to not put this as number one? Maybe. Controversial to include it on this list? Perhaps. But no matter your thoughts on one of the most controversial races of all time, there’s no doubting how iconic it was and how iconic it has become.
We all know what happened. An ‘interesting’ choice by then FIA race director Michael Masi to allow only select cars to unlap themselves behind the safety car at the end of the race to allow a one lap showdown between title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen for the World Championship still causes heated debate to this day.
It then caused one of the most iconic laps in the history of the sport, that ultimately gave Max Verstappen his first ever World Championship. It also created more fractures between the already fractured F1 fan base that had shown itself in full force across a heated 2021 season.
But what is also often forgotten about this race outside of the final lap is the contentious first lap. Lewis Hamilton going off the circuit and clearly gaining an advantage into turn 7 going unpunished is often overlooked amongst the controversy, and had Hamilton been penalised for that incident, then the final lap surely would’ve been a different story.
It’s also often forgotten about the incredible defensive driving by Sergio Perez that allowed Verstappen to catch Hamilton in the middle section of the race, something that seemed impossible only laps beforehand to give some intriguing moments in a dour race outside of those incidents.
But without a doubt, the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will go down in history as one of the most talked about Formula 1 races of all time.
1. 2010 – Winner: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
An easy choice for the number one slot. Back in 2020 this race made number six on my list of ‘top ten races of the 2010s’ and to me it remains the best race we’ve ever seen in Abu Dhabi.
The first (and still only) Championship decider to feature four drivers going for the crown, this race is perhaps best remembered for the drivers who didn’t win the Championship and the circumstances that cost them the title in Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber.
Both were favourite to win the title given they were first and second in the standings, with both Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel needing a lot to go their way to take the Championship.
Alonso qualified third ahead of Webber but behind both Hamilton and Vettel but knew that he simply had to remain in third to be crowned champion. A slow start for the Spaniard dropped him back in the field, and a brush with the barrier didn’t help his chances either. Ferrari decided to pit him in response to Webber’s early pit stop, but when he rejoined the track, he found himself stuck behind the Renault of Vitaly Petrov.
For 40 laps every single Alonso and Ferrari fan expected him to get in front of the Russian and make his way up to fifth, the position he needed to win title with Webber behind him. But it never happened. Alonso finished seventh, Vettel won the race and amazingly took his first title despite never having led the standings all season.
Ferrari and Alonso later admitted they reacted to Webber’s movements thinking he was the main challenger to Alonso winning the title and didn’t closely follow Hamilton or Vettel, a decision that ultimately cost them the Championship.
For Vettel though it was the start of a four year stretch of titles that put him into the upper tiers of the greats of F1 and gave us the most memorable Abu Dhabi Grand Prix of all time.
Do you agree with this list? Which Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is your favourite? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
This article was originally written for The Roar. You can read the published version here