An underwhelming Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has prompted another round of criticism of the Yas Marina circuit.
As we’ll explore below, its reputation is not necessarily completely deserved.
But there’s no denying that a 55-lap race in which so much of the outcome seemed conclusively settled after a set of lap 10 pitstops was a disappointing conclusion for a season that F1 and the teams put so much into making possible.
Here are the factors that stack up against Abu Dhabi.
THE LAYOUT’S BAD FOR OVERTAKING
On paper, this shouldn’t necessarily be the case. The two very long straights into the chicanes at Turns 8-10 and Turn 11-13 could in theory create the conditions for passing and repassing, with alternative lines and approaches working.
And that does happen, including in today’s race – see Charles Leclerc’s sometimes successful retaliation efforts as miscellaneous rivals attacked his Ferrari.
Conversely, when that passing/repassing shuffle happens it’s not necessarily exciting. There are times when the consecutive DRS zones cancel each other out, and a move into Turn 8 is pointless because the overtaken driver can easily repass on DRS on the next straight. Sometimes the door is deliberately left open at Turn 8 to be sure of this.
The pace difference needed to pull off an overtaking move is large, in the 1.5s region at least.
That’s because the layout of the rest of the track makes it extra-difficult for cars to follow each other closely and be in range approaching the key section.
The succession of 90-degree corners at the end of the lap is particularly costly here, and the slow, fiddly Turn 5-7 combination is difficult to keep momentum through when running close to another car.
It’s also impossible to imagine overtaking anywhere other than those two chicane complexes after the straight.
FEW FAST CORNERS, ERRORS AREN’T PUNISHED
The Turn 2-4 sweeps are as close as Yas Marina gets to truly challenging corners, and the ample run-off areas mean errors are easy to recovering from without much jeopardy.
As well as making it a less inspiring venue to watch the cars at – even in a dull Monaco or Spa race, the circuits showcase F1 well – the lack of driving challenge reduces the chance of mistakes shaking the race up.
TYRES CAN’T SAVE IT
Yas Marina is relatively high for degradation (which can be managed) but low for outright tread wear (which is costly).
That steers everyone towards a strategy of ‘get rid of the fragile tyres early, sit on the more durable ones forever’ with variations on that likely to be doomed to fail. The large pace advantage needed to pull off an overtaking move ushers teams into that strategy, too.
There’s little to be gained by going creative with strategy, and a lot to lose.
Today’s race might have been a slight exception as drivers starting on softs were going to have to pit much earlier than those on mediums, but the VSC negated this.
THERE’S NO WEATHER UNPREDICTABILITY
The predictably stable conditions are a huge factor in Abu Dhabi’s muted races.
It’s not just that the chance of rain is close to zero, the chance of any temperature fluctuation is also minimal. There’s very little that could destabilise a set-up choice or throw a curveball.
The Turkish GP was an extreme example of temperature madness causing unexpected events. Abu Dhabi is always going to be at the very opposite end of that scale.
LACK OF MOTORSPORT HERITAGE
Though Abu Dhabi has now been on the calendar over a decade, and in a normal year is a popular destination for fans and particularly corporate guests from around the world, it’s not exactly a Monza-style cathedral of fervent motorsport passion.
It’s easier to forgive a mundane race when there’s a crowd of enthusiastic, knowledgeable, even wildly partisan fans. That’s not something Abu Dhabi can offer F1 right now.
BAD REPUTATIONS STICK
It’s definitely true that Abu Dhabi is judged more harshly than other venues. There was passing today, and the result was an upset. It’s only the second time all season that Mercedes has been beaten on outright pace.
Holding the season finale slot puts it under a harsh microscope. If it’s a title decider, fans want a race and venue worthy of that mantle. If it’s a dead rubber, you want it to be worth your while hanging on for.
It’s the final memory F1 is leaving with its public before two or three months of hibernation. The impression it gives matters more than if it was just another round amid a run of fortnightly races mid-season.
Adelaide, Suzuka, Interlagos and even Jerez hosted title deciders where seismic things happened. Abu Dhabi’s title deciders have been most notable for what didn’t, or even couldn’t happen.
Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber couldn’t overtake Vitaly Petrov in 2010, so Sebastian Vettel snatched the championship. Lewis Hamilton couldn’t get anyone to pounce on Nico Rosberg even as he backed up the pack in 2016, so he lost the title to his Mercedes team-mate. 2014 was always a long shot for Rosberg even before his car broke.
Much-loved classic venues can get away with producing dull races because they have a legacy of better ones. Abu Dhabi has the opposite problem: its trend is so strongly for the uneventful that its better moments get lost in a fog of fans’ pessimism.
This was a blank canvas venue, and its creators tried to make it work. The quirky pitlane tunnel dive is still fun, you can see the logic of the big straight/chicane/big straight/chicane sequence, the opening sweeps are very decent corners.
But there’s over a decade of evidence now that it’s a disappointing venue for an F1 season finale. To get rid of that perception in fans’ minds, Yas Marina either needs a lower-pressure slot on the schedule or some significant surgery.
Track designer Hermann Tilke has mooted changes here in the past after dull races. Nothing has ever become a reality.
The ad hoc 2020 calendar has given F1 fans more of a taste for unpredictability, surprises and varied challenges. The season’s ended with a venue that eliminates those factors.