Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport crowned a triumphant 2017 F1 season with a front row lockout and a 1-2 finish - Valtteri Bottas taking his third victory of the season from a hard-earned fourth pole position, ahead of team-mate Lewis Hamilton. Valtteri was one of few drivers to improve on his second Q3 run at Yas Marina, stopping the clock with a 1m36.231s lap relative to Lewis' 1m36.403s.
"It's only the fourth pole of my whole career and I had to beat some pretty good qualifiers, so it's a great feeling to start from P1 tomorrow," said the Finn. "It was a really good qualifying, clean and smooth. With the changes we made, the car was behaving much better in qualifying than it did in free practice. Run after run, I could always find some time here and there, I really worked on the details."
Lewis while congratulating Valtteri on a 'mega lap', was not convinced he'd extracted the maximum from his W08. "I made a set-up change," he explained, "and in qualifying the rear end was not great. I don't really see it as a mistake, but a lesson for myself and my engineers. We've been pretty much on-point all season long, particularly in the second half, but you can't be perfect every time! I didn't quite have the great pace I had in the final session of practice."
In fact, Lewis had been up on Valtteri all the way to Turn 19, then made a tiny mistake that put them dead level. Lewis, possibly not fully aware of how close it was, tried to monster the last turn, which contributed to costing him pole.
Even so, with pole position for the two closing races, Valtteri is convinced he has stepped up his qualifying game since Mexico too. His next concern was making a better getaway than had been the case in Brazil, where Sebastian Vettel had got down the inside of him into Turn 1.
"Many times I've had issues being a bit too keen getting on the power," Valtteri admitted. "The tyres are so sensitive, and so is the Power Unit to applying the power, that we actually made some small changes to the pedal map, which really helped."
The first crucial building block to Valtteri's win had thus been laid, as there was never going to be much scope to overcome a rival using strategy on Sunday and the Yas Marina has traditionally been a difficult circuit on which to overtake. Although there is a double DRS zone and two lengthy straights, it's almost impossible to follow closely through the lap's final sector. The following sector, sector one, is flat-out and the combined effect means that a potential overtaker is unlikely to be near enough to a closely-matched car out of the Turn 7 hairpin. Engineers calculate that a 1.3 - 1.4s (per lap) speed advantage is required to pull off an effective pass.
Behind the two Silver Arrows, Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari gave chase, followed by Daniel Ricciardo's Red Bull (destined to retire after 20 laps), then Kimi Räikkönen's Ferrari and Max Verstappen in the second Red Bull.
Red Bull had turned down their Renault engines in the last race at Interlagos (800m altitude) after experiencing turbo and MGU-H problems in Mexico (2,300m altitude) but were hoping to be a thorn in the sides of Mercedes and Ferrari at the season finale. An inability to generate tyre temperature on the UltraSoft Pirelli in qualifying, however, had limited Ricciardo and Verstappen to the second and third rows respectively, with Max spending the evening staring at Räikkönen's rear wing.
With a lone pit stop to go from UltraSoft to SuperSoft Pirellis expected around 20 laps into the race's 55, Valtteri led Lewis by around 2.5s, with Vettel's Ferrari a further 5.5s behind. The margin over the Ferrari meant that even when Vettel was the first of the leading trio to stop, on lap 20, there was no real undercut threat given that the new SuperSofts were only marginally quicker than the used UltraSofts.
In fact, as in Monaco, an overcut might have been possible given extra pace in clean air, which is what Lewis tried. When Valtteri stopped the lap after Vettel, Lewis stayed out for a further three laps. Valtteri takes up the story: "When I was stopping I knew that the next few laps were key if Lewis stayed out. That was fair play as a team - if he had had a lot more pace he would have overcut me, because we'd seen from practice that it could be possible.
"I was slightly worried when I headed out from the pits as there was a yellow flag in Turn 5 for a couple of laps and also a double-yellow on one lap. I wasn't quite sure how much I had to lift and I was thinking about how much Lewis would be lifting! I knew that pace-wise there was a bit more in reserve and if I pushed really hard I could keep my position. When Lewis came out we had pretty much the same gap as before. Initially he really tried to attack but here it's so tricky to follow in sector three, so it was all good for me."
Another factor behind Lewis staying out a bit longer was that Ricciardo's broken-down Red Bull was still stranded out on the circuit and it was not impossible that race control may have deployed a Safety Car, giving Lewis a cheap stop. Thankfully for Valtteri, though, that didn't happen!
What did surprise the team, however, was that while both drivers had been able to open out a decent margin over Ferrari on the UltraSoft, their advantage on the SuperSoft was greater still. It all added up to the most comfortable evening of 2017 for the Mercedes pit wall, after Monza. And this on a track that conventional wisdom suggested should have played to the strengths of Ferrari's chassis.
What was the answer to yet another performance variance conundrum compared with, say, Singapore in the dry? Equally, this has been a night race run with a track temperature of around 30 degrees where the Ferraris - had they not been eliminated in a first-lap accident - would have flown?
The best theory that the engineering group could come up with is that where in Singapore there are very few straights to cool the tyres, in Abu Dhabi, once the driver is therough the high-speed sequence of Turns 2 / 3, they can lose a bit of time through Turns 5 / 6 / 7 but then have two long straights that cool the tyres again. They heat them up again in sector three but then have the start / finish straight into Turn 1, where they cool back down.
So, in Abu Dhabi there are enough straights to control tyre temperature, whereas at somewhere like Singapore the corners all chain into each other and the tyres are prone to overheating, suiting a chassis more benign in that respect. With a W08 that was not dramatically different, with the same wheelbase and a similar set-up, and the circuit layout the only fundamental difference, it was the best explanation on offer.
The advantage over Ferrari was such that, with 15 laps to go, Lewis was approaching the luxury of having a pit stop window behind him to Vettel's Ferrari, meaning thought could have been given to pitting for a set of UltraSofts, putting him in a strong position if there was a late-race Safety Car. The probability was not high, though, with just two Safety Car interventions in the previous eight Grands Prix at the Yas Marina.
In the end, the pit window didn't quite materialise and, in clean air, Valtteri had been managing his tyres anyway. At the end of the race he cut loose with lap times (including a 1m40.650s on lap 52 to clinch the fastest lap of the race) that even new tyres would not have substantially beaten, so Lewis would have been unable to make up the additional 21s pit stop time.
This is certainly not to say that the Silver Arrows had been cruising, however. The gap to Vettel was evidence of that. Lewis, in fact, had locked up in Turn 17 in his chase of Valtteri and redoubled his efforts as the pair of them closed in to lap Fernando Alonso's McLaren with just over five laps to go.
"I had a bit of a lock-up into Turn 5," Valtteri admitted, "and Lewis got close into Turn 8 and Turn 11 at the end of both straights, but not quite close enough to attack. I just had to keep my head together. I feel I perform well under pressure but could easily have messed up. When you have Lewis behind you, it doesn't need much and he will go for it. He said he tried everything and was just waiting for one mistake, but happily I didn't make one. It feels great to win the last one!"
There was no doubt that running so close behind Valtteri for the entire race, in conjunction with being aggressive in trying to overtake had taken the edge of Lewis' tyres. In Lewis's favour, though, was the fresher Power Unit fitted after his qualifying accident in Brazil. The team let the drivers use all of their engine modes to the point that they had about 18s over Vettel, then asked them to drop them down when it didn't look like Lewis was going to be able to pass Valtteri.
"Objection, your honour..." Lewis said - or words to that effect! - whereupon, after a re-think, both drivers were allowed to turn the engines back up again. Lewis, then, had been able to use marginally more power but not to a degree significant enough to compensate for the tyre disadvantage of having to follow another car.
Ultimately, the No. 77 Silver Arrow crossed the line 3.89s ahead of No. 44 - relative comfort in comparison to the 0.6s margin Valtteri had over Vettel in his first two wins, at Sochi and the Red Bull Ring! Had Ferrari raced to its full potential in Abu Dhabi or had it prioritised a safe runner-up spot in the Championship for Vettel? Post-race, the jury was out.
But, as the final curtain came down on another hugely successful season for Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, Toto's final words were: "This win for Valtteri, after some difficult times, is probably just what the doctor ordered. He delivered an exceptional weekend.
"I don't think we should be slapping ourselves on the back too hard. Let's stay sceptical. But, on the day, we had the quickest car and that is satisfying. Over the season it's been a capricious diva. We'd like to keep the diva but get rid of her capricious character! Finishing with a 1-2 is fantastic. I've loved the out-and-out racing this year, the winning and losing, the emotion of it. It's what we're all here for. I want to see more.
"Looking ahead to 2018, you cannot discount anyone. When the clever guys got their heads together about 2017, Ferrari wasn't on the radar... and today you can't just consider Ferrari and Red Bull. I'm curious to see where McLaren and Renault come out next year. The rules stay the same and it should be another highly competitive season."
Seventeen weeks may seem a long time for your next F1 fix but, rest assured, behind the scenes the praparation for 2018 is in full swing. F1 never sleeps!