Nobody who set foot in the Yas Marina circuit has been anything other than hugely impressed by the audacious scale, opulence and achievement of Formula One's latest showcase venue. "I walked round the track last night," Lewis Hamilton said on Thursday, "and I just couldn't believe it. It's night and day compared to Silverstone. They are both the complete ends of the spectrum."
Comparisons between the two tracks became ever more inevitable, as Bernie Ecclestone was embroiled in tough negotiations with Damon Hill, Richard Phillips and Neil England of the British Racing Drivers' Club over the British Grand Prix's future at the place it has belonged all along – Silverstone.
The fading economy might have made life tough for many Britons in neighbouring Dubai this past year, but on track in Abu Dhabi, where the hundreds of trees around the circuit are watered at a daily rate per head of £14, the nation's back-to-back world champions spent most of their time sitting in the pound seats. Hamilton looked strong for McLaren, while his successor Jenson Button has been driving his Brawn with all the old flair he showed at the start of the year. The title his, he is over his wobbly spell since Silverstone in July and would love nothing more than to end the season with a seventh victory.
"You know," he said, "I feel like I've been uncaged. I can enjoy myself again while jumping into an F1 car, and no longer feel stressed. It's been a long time since I got into an F1 car and didn't think about the world championship. I was leading it all season, so the last time was in Brazil for the last race of 2008. Now here we are at the last race of 2009, and I don't have to think about it any more."
Button is adamant that it is qualifying that has been problematic for him since Silverstone, not the races; that he drove no better nor worse in Brazil recently, where he clinched his crown, than he did when he was winning all the races at the start of the year. The jury is out on that one, but all weekend his driving has flowed just like it used to.
He was second quickest in Friday's opening practice session as Hamilton went a fraction quicker. They were second and third respectively in the second session, then Button was fastest ahead of Hamilton in the third one.
When it really mattered, Hamilton was on fire as he snatched his fourth pole position in seven races, to the surprise of speedy Red Bull duo Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber who thought they'd got the front row locked out until Hamilton put himself back on top again. "It's never easy," Hamilton said, "but it was definitely as much fun as it looked. The car is the best it's been all year and it feels quite comfortable on this circuit. It's a real pleasure to drive here when you've got the right car beneath you. I don't think we were too aggressive on strategy, and it was a smooth lap that kept getting better and better."
Button wasn't quite so sanguine, after qualifying fifth behind Hamilton, Vettel, Webber and team-mate Rubens Barrichello, who finally got ahead of him for the first time here.
"The car has felt good here all weekend and the first two sessions went well in qualifying," Button said. "Unfortunately in Q3 when we were running with high fuel and new tyres, I started to get massive vibrations every time that I hit the brakes. With such a smooth circuit any kind of vibration leads to understeer, which made the car quite a handful. It's frustrating as we should have been challenging for the first row behind Lewis."
"Coming here I hadn't seen any photos, just the hotel," Hamilton admitted, alluding to the Yas Hotel whose dramatic colour-changing roof was but one part of the seductive charm of the place as the yellow sun faded beneath the skyline partway through qualifying to create a balmy atmosphere. "The place is just stunning. They all said it would be a great event, but this is mindblowing."
But as Hill revealed that the talks with Ecclestone were "very close" to securing the British GP for Silverstone, Hamilton indicated that while he was impressed he was not overawed.
"The thing is," he said, "they will never have here what Silverstone has. You can't buy that. It's called character. That's something that builds over the years, the history of a place."
1 Lewis Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1min 40.948sec
2 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) RedBull-Renault 1:41.615
3 Mark Webber (Aus) RedBull-Renault 1:41.726
4 Rubens Barrichello (Bra) Brawn-Mercedes 1:41.786
5 Jenson Button (GB) Brawn-Mercedes 1:41.892
6 Jarno Trulli (Ita) Toyota 1:41.897
7 Robert Kubica (Pol) BMW Sauber 1:41.992
8 Nick Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 1:42.343
9 Nico Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Toyota 1:42.583
10 Sébastien Buemi (Swit) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:42.713
11 Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1:40.726
12 Kamui Kobayashi (Japan) Toyota 1:40.777
13 Heikki Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:40.983
14 Kazuki Nakajima (Japan) Williams-Toyota 1:41.148
15 Jaime Alguersuari (Sp) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:41.689
16 Fernando Alonso (Spa Renault 1:41.667
17 Vitantonio Liuzzi (Ita) Force India-Mercedes 1:41.701
18 Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India 1:41.863
19 Romain Grosjean (Fra) Renault 1:41.950
20 Giancarlo Fisichella (Ita) Ferrari 1:42.184Reuse content