How strategy will decide Mercedes vs Ferrari battle in Abu Dhabi

One more race in F1 2023 will bring the long season to an end in Abu Dhabi


Max Verstappen will win the 2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – that’s a formality unfortunately. Huge credit to Verstappen and Red Bull for making us all think like that but when he’s won every race he’s started from pole position since the 2022 Dutch GP, you can see why.

So we look to the battle between Mercedes and Ferrari as second place in the Formula 1 constructors’ championship is hanging finely in the balance with Toto Wolff‘s team holding a four-point advantage.

But, Charles Leclerc is on the front row alongside Verstappen, George Russell is fourth, Lewis Hamilton is 11th and Carlos Sainz down in 16th. It’s all going to be about race pace and strategy to decide which team gets the bragging rights and extra prize money.

Who will have the better race pace?

Traditionally, Ferrari‘s race pace has been weaker than Mercedes but the latter were behind in the last two events in Brazil and Las Vegas.

The long straights in Abu Dhabi and an in-form Leclerc gives an edge to Ferrari, although Russell has been flying all weekend at the Yas Marina Circuit too. It’s this battle which is so important because if they are fighting for second or third in the race, for example, there is a six-point swing depending on who finishes ahead of the other.

Verstappen should cruise into the distance, so Leclerc can manage his own pace and will likely just need to react to anything Russell does in the first round of pit stops, so having a buffer of more than two seconds will be important and having a McLaren in between would be even better.

Charles Leclerc looks on at the 2023 Abu Dhabi GP | Scuderia Ferrari

“The only thing that matters to me is that we challenge the Mercedes and that we take the second place in the constructors’ because in the drivers’, honestly finishing fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh in the drivers’, I don’t care,” Leclerc told the press.

“But second in the constructors’ would be nice. So we just need to beat the Mercedes, but of course if there’s an opportunity to beat Max, I’ll take it. However, on a track like this, with hot conditions like this, I expect us to struggle a bit more than Las Vegas, than what we’ve seen in Vegas on race pace.

“We’ve been good with the tyre management in Vegas in very different conditions. In FP3, I had quite a good feeling during the race simulations, so I hope we can reproduce that.”

What about Hamilton vs Sainz?

Hamilton is having one of his rare off weekends where he’s just not happy with the car and can’t get on top of it at all in any conditions.

If the seven-time world champion doesn’t win on Sunday, he will go two consecutive seasons without a victory. Mercedes could also go winless in a campaign for the first time since 2011.

Hamilton could get back into the top six in the race from 11th place and give Mercedes some crucial points. Sainz‘s crash in second practice is looking more and more important because his confidence must be dented and the car might not feel fully 100 percent after the heavy repairs.

In some ways, Sainz‘s mistake has saved Hamilton, who will still need to be weary about the potential threat of a charging Spaniard on Sunday.

“I’ve been struggling with the setup of the car here in Abu Dhabi this weekend, although our cars are set up the same, so we need to understand what it is on my side of the garage that’s causing the lack of performance,” said Hamilton.

“George managed to get the most out of the car finishing in P4. It takes some good going for me to not make it into Q3 so we need to do a deep dive and try our best to move up.

“The team here and back in the factory deserves a good result for the final race of the season so we will work hard as always and hopefully it will pay off and we can find improvements.”

One or two pit stops?

Since the track layout changes in 2021, Abu Dhabi has become a borderline one or two-stop race. The slow pit lane means you lose around 22 seconds when making a pit stop.

FP2 on Friday was the only session held at dusk before qualifying, but half of it was red flagged due to Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg‘s accidents.

No one was able to complete a long run of more than five laps, so there are big unknowns about the tyres and how much wear they will be.

Sainz will be aggressive and will likely run a very long first stint or pit early to make a big undercut. Mercedes may also pit Russell a bit earlier to force Ferrari‘s hand with Leclerc. This is the beauty of a championship battle in a finale.

“The decision taken by almost all the teams to save two sets of hard tyres, demonstrates that the C3 is the favoured compound,” said Pirelli boss Mario Isola.

“On paper, a one-stop is quickest, with the medium for the first stint before switching to the aforementioned hard. A two-stop race, with the sequence C4/C3/C3, is not that far off in terms of overall race time and could become a valid option especially if there is a neutralisation in the second part of the race.

“It’s hard to see the C5 coming into play, unless someone wants to gamble in the final stages on exploiting the soft’s grip advantage over a used hard, with a lighter car.”

John Smith
John Smith
Editor at and all round Motorsport journalist specialising in Formula 1, IndyCar and Formula E.
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