Historical feature: 2010 Abu Dhabi GP

At the 2010 Abu Dhabi GP Sebastian Vettel made history when he became the first man since James Hunt in 1976 to win the World Championship by taking the lead for the first time at the final round. It was a popular success for Vettel, who also relieved Lewis Hamilton of the title of youngest ever World Champion.

Vettel was only third in the points going into the weekend, and in essence had to win with leader Fernando Alonso placed fifth or lower. Already a winner in Abu Dhabi in 2009, he put himself in the prime position to do so by taking his 10th pole of the season ahead of title outsider Lewis Hamilton.

Meanwhile Alonso took third place, and gave himself a good chance of winning the title if he could stay close enough to Vettel on Sunday. Jenson Button took fourth place, while the fourth title contender, Mark Webber, was squeezed down to fifth.

The first lap passed without incident for the key contenders. Vettel led Hamilton off the line, while Button had a good getaway and got in front of Alonso to claim third place. One more place lost would cost Fernando the title, and with Webber on his tail, he couldn’t afford any mistakes.

Half way round the first lap a collision between Michael Schumacher and Tonio Liuzzi created a safety car period, and several drivers who had started on option tyres took the chance to pit and switch to primes, in effect ensuring that they could run to the flag. Among them were Nico Rosberg and Vitaly Petrov.

Once the green flag came out Vettel edged away from Hamilton, who in turn was clear of Button, Alonso and Webber. The top five drifted apart. It seemed to be stalemate as once again the circuit proved that it didn’t provide any overtaking opportunities.

Webber wasn’t happy with his tyres, and with nothing to lose in terms of the title fight, he pitted on lap 11. He’d had Ferraris either side of him, Alonso in front and Felipe Massa behind, and naturally the Maranello crew paid close attention to what he was doing. Webber was a dual threat — if he got in front of Alonso he would help Vettel win the title, while he still had a chance in his own right. Two laps after Webber’s stop, Felipe Massa pitted, and then two laps after that, Alonso followed suit.

Initially it looked like Ferrari had pulled a good move, ensuring that Webber couldn’t jump Alonso. But then reality hit home. Ahead of Alonso were not just the cars that had yet to pit, but Rosberg and Petrov, both of whom had pitted at the start, and could now run to the flag. Taking Vettel, Hamilton and Button into account, in real terms Alonso was sixth, and thus two places off where he needed to be.

Helped by his efficient F-Duct, Petrov put in an awesome performance. Try as he might, Alonso could not find a way past the Renault, and the gap to those up ahead and who had yet to stop began to open.

Up front Vettel was driving a copybook race, making no mistakes and keeping Hamilton safely behind. Lewis pitted on lap 23, and RBR responded by stopping Vettel a lap later. The McLaren man came out behind Robert Kubica, who had yet to stop. Just like his Renault team mate the Pole kept the potentially quicker car behind for lap after lap, which allowed Vettel to escape.

Those stops left Button in the lead, and McLaren decided to leave the outgoing champion there, on the basis that he was going to pit and resume third come what may. He stayed out until lap 39.

Meanwhile Alonso was stuck in eighth place, as Kubica and Adrian Sutil had yet to stop. The German wasn’t an issue, but eventually the gap between Kubica and Alonso grew to the extent that it looked like he could pit and come out still in front of the Ferrari. And that’s what happened when Kubica came in on lap 46.

Meanwhile Vettel reeled off the remaining laps and crossed the line safely clear of Hamilton. When the other cars had finished and Alonso’s seventh position confirmed, he was told that he was World Champion.

“I was tempted to watch the screens but I didn’t as my engineer, the last 10 laps, kept telling me all sorts of things, the gaps and pace,” he said. “Partly I asked for it, to know where I am. I think in none of these 19 races he has been so alive in the last 10 laps!

“I was already thinking ‘what is going on?,’ and I was seeing sometimes on the screen Lewis behind a Renault, and also I think it was Alonso behind a Renault. But then I just tried to forget and kept driving and focused on myself.”