Abu Dhabi - When Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the man who helped bring grand prix racing to Abu Dhabi, met Bernie Ecclestone at the circuit on Friday, his first question was a pertinent one.
“Bernie,” he asked, “what are we going to do about this sport?”
The answer he was searching for was probably not “sack the best driver for having a race” - but that is where Formula One sits post-race, Lewis Hamilton in the doghouse with Mercedes, facing suspension, perhaps even termination, for having the temerity to try to win the drivers’ championship.
To do so, he would have deprived a Mercedes team-mate, Nico Rosberg, of the prize - but there is a moment when driving becomes an individual pursuit and it was reached in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. If it is merely a race controlled remotely by men with computers, what spectacle remains?
That Hamilton’s professional integrity should be challenged for turning the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix into something more than a marina-based party with a safe procession of race cars attached rather emphasises Al Mubarak’s point.
The respected advisor to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan - and better known in Britain as chairman of Manchester City - Al Mubarak is no F1 novice. He loves the racing and, as chairman of the Abu Dhabi Motor Sports Management Company, it was his vision to bring F1 to the country and make it the highlight of the region’s sporting calendar.
Where was the occasion otherwise?
Ecclestone respects Al Mubarak’s concerns, and shares many of them. Abu Dhabi pays a huge premium to secure the spectacle of the final race. Yet if Hamilton had followed the instructions of his team on Sunday, where was the occasion?
It was only Hamilton’s decision to disobey orders that lifted what should have been one of the global events of the sporting year above the mundane.
Had Hamilton done as told, he would have gone around the circuit 55 times, a comfortable distance from second-placed Rosberg, who would have been equally at ease heading off the rest of the field. Who would pay a premium to host that? More importantly, who would wish to watch it?
How many teenagers are engaged by F1 these days? The rise of sports such as mixed martial arts shows that younger audiences demand action.
F1 can certainly deliver this but often chooses not to. With an over-reliance on team instructions and incomprehensible technology, the sports risks alienating itself from all but the most intense petrol-heads. If Hamilton is in trouble for racing, what market will there be, long term, for F1?
Abu Dhabi knows what it is getting by hosting the final race of the season. The country’s executives are realistic about what is achievable in the region in sporting terms. After the debacle around Qatar 2022, the Gulf is unlikely to get a World Cup any time soon and the heat of August surely precludes an Olympics. FIFA has played the Club World Cup there but that becomes problematic if plans go ahead to expand the competition to 32 teams and hold it in summer.
Jewel in Abu Dhabi’s crown
So the Grand Prix is the jewel in Abu Dhabi’s crown and giant efforts were made to make the location as spectacular as possible. Marinas were drained and re-imagined, a hotel project doubled in size and sprawled across the circuit. Even the illumination around the track is exceptional.
Abu Dhabi is a twilight grand prix, starting close to dusk and finishing in darkness - but the wattage needed for high definition broadcast was considered to be lacking a sufficient wow factor. Instead, the lights that irradiate the Yas Marina Circuit are brighter than Arabian daylight. It helps to have a government that doesn’t worry about the electric bill.
And for three days, the marina area becomes a different country, too. Abu Dhabi is the leading Emirate, modern yet with traditional roots. Women are expected to have their shoulders respectfully covered. It is fair to say that rule is relaxed around the Grand Prix, where very little stays covered at all.
Cipriani, regarded as the best restaurant on the marina but relatively quiet much of the year, pulls in 1400 covers on the Saturday night, with a substantial minimum spend per person. The cheapest bottle of wine is roughly £100 (R1730); a shot of gin is £30. It is a scene more reminiscent of Studio 54 in its heyday than the staid Middle East.
Meanwhile, competing with the sound systems from restaurants and clubs are the moored yachts outside, hosting parties that are still going strong at 5am.
If you haven’t got a laser show cutting through the night sky, the Chemical Brothers banging it out and 200 half-naked wannabe supermodels hanging over the side drinking caipirinhas, you really aren’t trying hard enough. And this is the backdrop against which Hamilton was told to rein it in, to quit racing, to circuit the track like a good little boy until another driver won.
No wonder he was nowhere to be seen on the Mercedes table at the Amber Lounge on Sunday night. It comes to something when the dancefloor contains more adventure than the circuit.
Anarchy or racing
“Anarchy does not work in any team and any company,” sniffed Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff - but what Hamilton did was not anarchy. It was racing. A different form of it, maybe, because out in front Hamilton was going as slow as he could in order to back Rosberg into the rest of the field, but that was his only chance of getting the outcome he needed to swipe the drivers’ championship.
He had to win and Rosberg had to finish off-podium. But there were plenty of ways Rosberg could have affected those tactics. He could have taken pole on Saturday; he could have attacked Hamilton at the first bend. He did neither.
Late in the race, he said Mercedes should tell Hamilton to let him pass and he would then return the favour at the end of the final lap, so Hamilton won the race. For a champion driver, it was embarrassing.
Those who love boxing have a saying for when strategy overtakes spectacle: “Fighters fight.” And racers race. What Hamilton did combined the finest elements of F1 driving - a winning race, a tactical race and an exciting race - and his team having already won the constructors’ championship, Hamilton was right to say this was now between him and Rosberg.
If Mercedes removes the gladiatorial element of the sport, if it makes it just about men in garages looking at numbers and lap times, F1 may as well return to the days when racing was the preserve of posh chaps with handlebar moustaches.
If the final race of 2016 is remembered, it will only be for Hamilton’s challenge. Mercedes must come to its senses, relent and realise that to expect an F1 driver to have the same instincts as the company accountant suggests a sport losing touch with its soul. As Hamilton put it succinctly on Sunday: “I suggest you just let us race.”
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