There was a strange energy around the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that served as a gentle warning with a 24-race Formula 1 calendar finally on the horizon in 2024.
The F1 paddock had a bit of lethargy to it in Abu Dhabi and, while this was the normal end of year fatigue to a point, it felt exaggerated by a brutal Las Vegas event that left many people tired, two drivers (Esteban Ocon and George Russell) unwell, and the fact it was a fifth race in six weeks that simply felt like oversaturation.
As for the grand prix, it was fine by Abu Dhabi standards, and had a bit of low-stakes championship intrigue. But it was a painful contrast to arguably the best grand prix of the season in Vegas a week before, and that was a sub-optimal way to round off a season that has lacked a championship narrative since May.
Outside of 2021, the Abu Dhabi GP has never had much vim about it. And the Yas Marina circuit is probably not the place to end a season, especially one like this.
It’s a venue with extremely good facilities and excellent staff, puts on a lavish offering for the high rollers, and pleases the race-going fans with a range of on-site offerings and concerns.
But considering the owners started with a completely blank slate, it remains frustrating and disappointing that this is the circuit we’re left with.
It’s certainly not a great sign when Max Verstappen says one of the things he likes about coming here is “it’s very chilled” because it’s the end of the season! Although he and Charles Leclerc were more complimentary about the track in qualifying form.
Every year there are comments about how to improve the racing and this time, Verstappen and Leclerc suggested making some of the corners more banked to make it easier to follow. Attempts to improve the quality of racing it produces have been inconclusive at best, and it remains very difficult to follow closely on. Really, though, these layout tweaks are just fiddling around the edges of a track that is more about style than substance.
Frankly, Abu Dhabi is usually going to be a procession, and nothing about the 2023 race offered much surprise. But this is not intended to just be a complaint about this race or circuit. It reflects a wider concern.
Track-specific problems are always more harshly exposed when the sporting competition itself is weaker. And given the Verstappen/Red Bull domination of 2023, the only real intrigue as the season has progressed has been localised to each grand prix.
Really, the lack of spectacle in Abu Dhabi was a reflection of the season that preceded it. And though the success of Verstappen and Red Bull should be lauded and respected, F1 must be sincerely hoping it is not replicated in 2024.
It's a worrying prospect for the even more bloated 24-race schedule to end with nothing really on the line once again. Especially as Abu Dhabi will conclude a triple-header, which really need something special to retain fan enthusiasm the whole way through.
And that’s what really matters. It’s always dangerous to conflate the sentiment inside the F1 bubble with how people are perceiving things outside. What the fans want and enjoy is what counts.
If the calendar keeps expanding it needs to be managed well, and worth fans sticking with. That means the right races in the right places on the schedule and, crucially, a good sporting spectacle to witness.
Trusting that people will habitually tune in for a low-energy, low-stakes procession for the 24th time in a season, for years to come, would be a risky assumption to make.