ABU DHABI: The Formula One season came to a close in Abu Dhabi with one last Max Verstappen win of the year — his 19th in 2023 — and Mercedes edging Ferrari to P2 in the Constructors’ Championship by just three points.
It has been a busy four days at Yas Marina Circuit with lots of takeaways from the conversations we have had with the drivers and team principals, as well as numerous celebrity sightings around the paddock all weekend.
Here’s what you may have missed from some of the action off the track.
Tennis players rock the paddock
The F1 paddock is always a popular destination for celebrities and Abu Dhabi this year has been no exception with the likes of Chris and Liam Hemsworth, Priyanka Chopra, Naomi Campbell, and Jason Statham among the A-listers making an appearance at Yas Marina Circuit.
From the football world, Sergio Aguero rocked a custom-made Manchester City race suit and presented the DHL Fastest Lap award to Verstappen on Saturday, while Patrice Evra was in an all-white linen suit when he turned up to the paddock on Sunday.
However, what stood out the most was the number of tennis stars in the house this weekend. Tunisian Ons Jabeur attended both qualifying and the race as a guest of title sponsors Etihad Airways.
The three-time Grand Slam finalist got to catch up with retired Russian ace Maria Sharapova, who walked into the paddock with the Hemsworths, Chopra and Statham before going up to the stands to watch the race.
Poland’s world No. 9 Hubert Hurkacz is a big fan of the sport and came to the track from Friday to Sunday. A guest of F1, Hurkacz told me he has always loved cars and was thrilled to attend his first grand prix.
Danish world No. 8 Holger Rune was spotted at the Ferrari hospitality villa and had a quick catch-up with Charles Leclerc before the race, while tennis pair Denis Shapovalov and his fiancee Mirjam Bjorklund arrived just in time for the action as guests of Aston Martin.
“It’s that Canadian connection,” said Shapovalov with a laugh, referring to his compatriot Lance Stroll, who drives for Aston Martin.
Other tennis players in attendance included Hemsworth look-alike Karen Khachanov and Alexander Zverev.
Gasly not interested in entertainment and sport debate
The Las Vegas Grand Prix last weekend reopened the debate of how much of a spectacle a sport is allowed to be. Several drivers said the inaugural race in Vegas was more of a “show” than anything else, and many complained about the tough scheduling that made them see no sunlight for the whole weekend.
Sport, of course, is a business and is entertainment and it cannot survive without generating a great deal of interest from fans around the world.
Alpine driver Pierre Gasly was asked to weigh in on the debate and whether he felt F1 got the balance right between putting on a show and highlighting the sport.
“I love the sport and personally I’m quite fine with the entertainment side of things,” said Gasly.
“I think it’s very personal and it depends how you can cope with it. I know I’m not someone that is really disturbed with that side of the sport. Obviously the priority needs to always remain on the actual sport.
“What I’d like is to almost have more priority on the driver side of things, where I feel at the minute it’s too much driven by car performance. So that’s more something that I’ll be focusing on as a sport rather than entertainment, sport, blah, blah, blah. At the end of the day we survive and everyone is paid here because people are watching us, so it’s a balance you need to find.
“But what I care the most about is that all drivers will be given fair chances to fight for the best positions, where at the minute there’s clearly a sort of imbalance in the performance of all 10 teams. It’s always been the case in F1, I’m fine with it, but I do see a lot of talk of this entertainment versus sport balance kind of thing and I think it’s really personal how you deal with it.”
Toto Wolff: Sport is a meritocracy
Speaking of “fair chances,” Mercedes’ team principal Toto Wolff was asked about the massive gap between Red Bull and the rest of the field, and whether the Austrian team’s dominance is hurting F1.
“The numbers that we are seeing are strong. When we go on social we see races that are packed and sold out,” said Wolff on Sunday.
“But as a matter of fact it is all around the spectacle and if the spectacle is not good, fans are going to follow us less. What I always say is that the spectacle follows the sport. And the sport is a meritocracy; whoever is doing the best job wins and if somebody is doing a much better job than everybody else, then they’re winning 19 races.
“It is us and Ferrari and all the other teams that have to do a better job in order to compete with Red Bull Racing.”
Hamilton focused on growing his legacy
So much of Lewis Hamilton’s pre-race press conference was dominated by Christian Horner’s claims that the British driver had reached out to Red Bull to see if they had a seat for him.
As Hamilton clarified, it was in fact the Red Bull team principal who had contacted him and not the other way round, but something way more interesting caught my attention in what he said.
One of the journalists asked Hamilton — a seven-time world champion — if driving for Red Bull was an appealing prospect for him, given he would be racing in a winning car. The 38-year-old said building toward beating Red Bull with Mercedes would be much better for his legacy in the sport.
“Let’s be realistic. Every single driver that’s racing here dreams of being in a winning car. I think probably in my younger days when I hadn’t maybe had a lot of success, maybe in those McLaren days, it would have been a lot more attractive,” he explained.
“When I think about (it), just from a racing perspective and my viewpoint of things, when I moved to this team I enjoyed moving from a more successful team to a team that hadn’t had success, with the vision of growing and building on the team. Because when we did then win, it was such a better feeling.
“Whilst every driver here looks at the Red Bull and would love to drive that car, and I’m not saying I wouldn’t love to drive that car and experience how good that car (is), every driver would want to feel that. I feel that we’ve had two very difficult years and if we work towards beating that car that’s going to be a way better feeling than just stepping into the best car.
“It wouldn’t do much for me in the sense of just stepping into the car that’s been the most dominant car of all time. Working with my team to build, to be able to beat them, I think would be better for my legacy, for sure.”
It is fascinating to see how clear his perspective is on the matter.
Alonso welcomes added pressure in 2024
Fernando Alonso deemed his 2023 campaign a “dream season” for himself and his Aston Martin team after securing fourth in the Drivers’ Championship with an impressive eight podiums.
No one expected the 42-year-old could pull off a season like that at the start of the year, and the Spanish two-time world champion acknowledges the pressure will be much higher in 2024. It is something he is welcoming with open arms.
“It has been a historic season for Aston Martin and for myself. Eight podiums, 300 points nearly for the team. Twelve months ago this was unthinkable,” said Alonso on Sunday following his P7 finish in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
“This is the best season ever for the team as well, with whatever name they had before. It’s an incredible year to remember. The expectations were low, so we exceeded the expectations this year. Maybe next year is the opposite, expectations will be very high, so we have some pressure on our shoulders.
“This is Formula One, this is not a charity event. We have to have the pressure, we have to deliver. Fifth in the constructors’ hurts a little bit because I think we were better than that. We were hoping for better than that at the beginning of the year.
“To finish fourth in the drivers’ is a little bit unreal. Fighting with the guys that we were fighting with, in fact, if we are fifth in the constructors’ you should be ninth or 10th.
“So, it’s a dream season for many people in Aston Martin, including myself.”