Despite all the opulence, and the stunning Yas Hotel roof whose colours flickered dramatically as day turned to dusk in the inaugural day/night race here, only Jenson Button's late charge in pursuit of Mark Webber saved the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix from being the Abu Dullbi race.
Once a brake problem had stymied Lewis Hamilton's bold surge from pole position in his McLaren, Sebastian Vettel had no competition as he led Webber home in a season-ending Red Bull one-two. The young German's brilliant win cemented second place for him in the drivers' world championship behind Button, who exorcised all his ghosts of any shaky performances this season to enliven what had hitherto been a very tepid affair.
Hamilton led from the start, but was already beginning to experience retardation problems before he refuelled on the 17th lap. Twice he had run wide in the sweeping corners that are a feature of the Yas Marina track, and when Vettel ran three laps longer before stopping he was able to negotiate the unusual underground pit lane exit to emerge comfortably in the lead. Soon afterwards Hamilton's challenge ended when McLaren had to withdraw his car after the telemetry revealed a problem with the right rear brake pads which were suffering from excessive wear.
"It was a fantastic race," Vettel said. "I had a very good launch at the start even if it was not good enough to out-accelerate Lewis. But down the long back straight he pushed the magic Kers button that we don't have and disappeared into the distance. But I was soon able to stay close enough. The car was a dream today, and I was always catching him quite a lot. That was the secret. There was a lot of pressure on me when I was going into pit lane and I went wide, then there was the scary exit, but I was fast enough to go past him."
McLaren's engineers tried to put Hamilton into a brake-conservation mode, but when the high wear-rate refused to respond they had no alternative but to withdraw him after 20 laps rather than risk possible failure. "I had a good start, but I realised early on that something wasn't right with the brakes," the outgoing world champion said. "After three or four laps, it became clear that there was a problem with my right-rear brake pads, so I couldn't open up the gap back to Sebastian and Mark.
"When the problem got worse, the team radioed me and told me to stop at the end of the lap. It's a shame that we couldn't show the performance we'd had throughout the weekend – but sometimes that's racing. But I think we can be really proud of our efforts: who'd have thought we'd finish third in the constructors' championship at the start of this season? It's been an incredible year, and now I can't wait for next season to start so I can fight for the world championship again."
That moved Webber up to second, with Button at that stage a distant third ahead of Brawn team-mate Rubens Barrichello. The Brazilian had run ahead of the Englishman on the opening lap but clipped Webber's left rear wheel with the right-hand endplate of his front wing, causing understeer.
Button overtook, and chased after Webber, though just after his first pit stop he again had to give best to impressive Japanese rookie Kamui Kobayashi, until the Toyota driver finally made his sole refuelling stop after 30 laps.
"It was a fun race," Button said. "For me the harder, prime Bridgestone tyre was not my favourite tyre. In hindsight two stints on the softer compound option tyre would have been better and might have let me get closer to the Red Bulls, but we didn't expect it to be that way.
''The prime had been better up until today and it was the better tyre for qualifying, but I had a lot of understeer on the primes in the first two stints and as the temperature dropped the darker it got and it became difficult to get heat into the front tyres. In the second stint Rubens was behind me, sitting on my tail. But then the soft tyre transformed the car in the final stint and suddenly I was able to pull Mark in.
''Suddenly I had this great front end, with lots of grip on initial turn in," Button added, "and I could then carry more speed into the corners."
That switch coincided with Webber struggling on his option tyres, which he said did not give him much feel or confidence, and suddenly what had been a seven-second gap began shrinking at an alarming rate.
On the final lap Button actually drew alongside Webber at the end of the 1.2 kilometre back straight, but the Australian handled the situation beautifully, hogging the inside line and forcing Button to go to the outside. They ran side by side for a while, but in the end Webber was able to keep his second place by 0.6 seconds.
"When you're getting caught you really have to make sure you don't make any mistakes and give the guy something," Webber said, "so I just had to make sure he had to work for it."
"It was a good tussle, a fair fight," Button said. "It was clean, but though I got alongside I just couldn't quite make the move stick. I thought I might pull it off but Mark is always difficult to overtake.
"It was clean but the on the edge. And it was great to end my championship year with a podium finish."
With his fourth victory of the year Vettel clearly signalled his potential for the future. "This evening it was a pleasure to sit in the car," he beamed. "The second half of the season has been very strong for us, so congratulations to the team, they have been pushing a lot back in the factory. It's a shame the season ends now, to be honest, but a perfect way to finish the season on a high."
Yas Marina: Result & final standings
Final race positions
1 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1hr 34min 3.414sec
2 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:34:21.271
3 J Button (GB) Brawn GP 1:34:21.881
4 R Barrichello (Br) Brawn GP 1:34:26.149
5 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 1:34:29.667
6 K Kobayashi (Japan) Toyota 1:34:31.757
7 J Trulli (It) Toyota 1:34:37.780
8 S Buemi (Swi) Toro Rosso 1:34:44.708
9 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams 1:34:49.355
10 R Kubica (Pol) BMW Sauber 1:34:51.594
11 H Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren 1:34:56.212
12 K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1:34:57.731
13 K Nakajima (Japan) Williams 1:35:03.253 14 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:35:13.101
15 V Liuzzi (It) Force India 1:35:37.864
16 G Fisichella (It) Ferrari 1:34:06.897
17 A Sutil (Ger) Force India 1:34:10.427
18 R Grosjean (Fr) Renault 1:34:11.396
19 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren, 20 laps, brakes,
20 J Alguersuari (Sp) Toro Rosso, 18 laps, gearbox.
Final driver standings
1 Button......... 95 points
3 Barrichello......... 77
4 Webber......... 69.5
5 Hamilton......... 49
6 Raikkonen......... 48
7 Rosberg......... 34.5
9 Alonso......... 26
10 T Glock (Ger) Toyota......... 24
11 F Massa (Br) Ferrari......... 22
12 Kovalainen......... 22
13 Heidfeld......... 19
14 Kubica......... 17
15 Fisichella......... 8
16 Buemi......... 6
18 Kobayashi......... 3
19 S Bourdais (Fr) Toro Rosso......... 2
Final constructor's standings
1 Brawn......... 172 points
2 Red Bull ......... 153.5
3 McLaren ......... 71
4 Ferrari......... 70
5 Toyota......... 59.5
6 BMW Sauber......... 36
7 Williams......... 34.5
8 Renault......... 26
9 Force India......... 13
10 Toro Rosso......... 8