The last Formula 1 grand prix of any year always permeates an atmosphere of finality, as drivers are forced to face a sense of satisfaction/bitter disappointment (delete as appropriate) for their season’s endeavours.
It’s a time for goodbyes as drivers sign off from teams and look ahead with optimism for F1 pastures new – while there are always one or two who know this is it in terms of their time on the grand prix grid.
Given how hard it is to get to the top, and then how even harder it is to stay there, the final GP is a tough moment for any racing driver, be they a veteran of, say, 312 (a certain Spaniard) or simply a single season’s worth.
This year it felt more drivers than usual were waving adieu to F1. Five of the ‘Class of 2018’ won’t be on the grid in Melbourne in March 2019 – perhaps six if Toro Rosso choose not to retain Brendon Hartley – and each can tell a story that their fate is undeserved.
Who knows? One or two might be back in the future. But just as in real life, there are no guarantees. No wonder emotions were running high as night closed in on Sunday night in Abu Dhabi.
1 Marcus Ericsson
The 28-year-old Swede has spent the past five seasons in Formula 1, notching up 97 grand prix starts – but has spent most of them as an anonymous backmarker. After a debut season at the now defunct Caterham F1 team in 2015, three seasons in back-of-the-grid Saubers never really allowed Ericsson the opportunity to show he was more than a competent journeyman.
This year, his fourth in a more competitive Ferrari-powered Sauber has at least showed glimpses of why he was originally considered a worthy F1 graduate after a respectable junior career. Back-to-back appearances in Q3 sessions, a career-best sixth on the grid in Brazil and a season points tally (nine) equalling his previous best has allowed him to exit with his head held high.
Ericsson makes way for Kimi Räikkönen and highly-rated Antonio Giovinazzi next year as he heads stateside for a Schmidt Peterson drive in Indycars. But by maintaining a reserve drive role with Sauber, he is only one step away from making a return, if required.
So he might still have a chance to make it to the magic 100 GP starts after all.
2 Stoffel Vandoorne
Where did it all go wrong for the 26-year-old Belgian, once rated as the hottest prospect on the block? His McLaren debut, as substitute for the injured Fernando Alonso in Bahrain in 2016, seems an awful long time ago after the two seasons he has endured at the team.
That weekend, he outqualified team-mate Jenson Button and raced to 10th and a maiden world championship point. But once entrusted with a full-time drive, he slumped into mediocrity, his cause hardly helped by bad timing – joining the once-great team at its lowest ebb.
Back-to-back seventh places last year in Singapore and Malaysia suggested progress, but this year he is the only F1 driver to have been outqualified in every race by his team-mate. OK, so Alonso is pretty special, but even the two-time world champion himself would admit qualifying is not his strong point. Vandoorne gave McLaren no reason to retain him for a third season.
He heads to the Mercedes-supported HWA Formula E team, while maintaining an F1 link through a simulator deal with the world champion-winning manufacturer. But right now, it’s hard to see him adding to his 41 GP starts without someone showing an awful lot of faith.
3 Sergey Sirotkin
The Russian was labelled a pay-driver when Williams signed him for 2018 – but he’s hardly in the minority. Even in the distant past, drivers have needed a financial leg-up to gain their F1 chance – just ask Niki Lauda – so his status doesn’t necessarily need to be derogatory.
And he has at least proven a close match to well-heeled team-mate Lance Stroll, which, in a dreadfully uncompetitive Williams-Mercedes this year, is all we can judge him on. In their season qualifying battle, Sirotkin emphatically emerged on top.
To those who have looked close enough, he surely doesn’t deserve to be on the scrap-heap at 23. It’s not fair – but as plenty have found before him, that’s F1.
4 Esteban Ocon
Set aside his foolish Brazilian collision with Max Verstappen for a moment. It’s an indictment of modern F1 that Ocon, 22, has lost out in the F1 musical chairs for next season, a victim it seems of his Mercedes connections, no less.
Following the change of ownership at Force India, it was always unlikely that he would remain at the team as ‘manager’s son’ Lance Stroll joins from Williams for 2019. But we shouldn’t feel too sorry for Ocon. A reserve driver role at Mercedes leaves him on the side-lines for now, but Valterri Bottas – winless in 2018 – will be looking over his shoulder for 2020.
Managed by Merc team principal Toto Wolff, we’d put money on Ocon returning to a race seat for the year after next – and just possibly in the best in the house.
5 Fernando Alonso
What’s left to say about the great man? One thing to set straight is that he’s not ‘retiring’, as those blinkered F1 paddock dwellers seemed determined to insist in Abu Dhabi.
Alonso’s attention now turns to securing the World Endurance Championship ‘super-season’ title with Toyota, a tilt at a second Le Mans 24 Hours win – and that unofficial triple crown: victory at the Indianapolis 500 with a McLaren-backed effort next May would seal his personal ambition to join the ranks of the great motor sport all-rounders.
But the truth is, whatever happens next on his evolving motor racing adventure, Alonso has nothing left to prove to anyone – least of all himself.