The 2016 Formula 1 title race is just one of many finales in Abu Dhabi this weekend
Rosberg and Hamilton dominate but there are other endings to mark writes Formula Spy's Thomas Maher15:47 Thursday 24 November 2016, 15:47 24 Nov 2016
Formula 1 2016 wraps up this weekend in Abu Dhabi and, on paper, all looks set for Nico Rosberg to clinch his first title - even though it may be closer than he would have hoped.
The final race of this year takes place at the Yas Marina Island Circuit just outside the city of Abu Dhabi. It's the epitome of a modern F1 facility - it's pretty flat, with acres of run-off area, and doesn't have much that's memorable in terms of corners. It's got two massive long straights which, coupled with DRS, allow for overtaking and the chance for a passed car to fight back. Making its debut in 2009, Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen famously said of the track: "The first few corners are OK, but the rest of it is s**t". Despite not being a hugely exciting circuit, the facilities are excellent and the spectacle of racing under day to night conditions is undeniable.
The venue has held three championship deciders. Sebastian Vettel stole the title from the more likely protagonists Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber in 2010, before taking a more dominant victory again in 2013. 2014 saw the two Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg go up against each other for the first time. Hamilton won on that occasion, beating Rosberg off the line and stamping his authority all over the race, even before Rosberg encountered a mechanical issue that saw him forlornly trail home outside the points.
Rosberg and Hamilton
This year is a different story for Rosberg. While 2014 saw Hamilton required to finish in the top two to seal his championship, the task is even easier for Nico this weekend. All he has to do is finish in the top three. Given that he's driving a car that is still the class of the field, he can even afford to lose out to an additional car to his teammate and still wrap up the title. After being granted a big lead in the title chase after Hamilton's engine failure in Malaysia, the Brazilian GP was always going to be the danger race for Rosberg, due to the usual unpredictable nature of the track and the conditions. Interlagos didn't disappoint in that regard, with copious amounts of rain dragging out the race and making conditions very tricky. Nico almost threw away his entire championship with an error entering the main straight in the treacherous conditions, but managed to survive that and the pace of Red Bull's Max Verstappen to still finish P2 and make sure his campaign remained on track. Abu Dhabi, out in the desert, isn't likely to have too much unpredictable happen in terms of weather.
Unless Rosberg manages to dominate in Abu Dhabi this weekend, it won't have been a particularly spectacular end to a title win. He's been outgunned by Hamilton at every event since Japan, while Lewis has been slamming home win after win. But, the thing is, Rosberg doesn't need to win. He's known he can come second in every race and still claim the title. How much of the last few races have been Rosberg being beaten, and how much of it has been him settling for second? It's almost as if he tries his hardest in qualifying and, if Hamilton gets the better of him, he is perfectly accepting of taking P2, knowing that Lewis' best efforts still aren't enough. Calmly collecting methodical points finishes aren't a pretty way of winning the championship but it's a proven way of winning the ultimate prize - just ask Nico's father Keke, who won just a single race en route to the 1982 title.
Contrast that to the spectacular style of racing being displayed by Max Verstappen - the explosive highlight of 2016 F1. Such has been his comfort level at the very top of the grid, it's almost unthinkable that Daniil Kvyat was in that Red Bull just six months ago while Verstappen was in the Toro Rosso. We've gotten very used to him challenging for wins and podiums, and Brazil was no different a fortnight ago. While fiery rain drives have been witnessed by great drivers in the past, there were also different tyre manufacturers at play for many of these.
Rosberg and Verstappen
This isn't applicable to Brazil. Verstappen was on the exact same tyre compound as Nico Rosberg when the Dutch driver steely drove around the outside of the Mercedes in the lashing rain. It was a stunning move and, had Red Bull not opted to take a risky gamble with the Intermediate tyres later on, could have changed the narrative of this year's championship. Verstappen's ever increasing highlights reel is starting to diminish the status of Daniel Ricciardo too. At no point over the Brazilian weekend did the popular Aussie look on terms with Verstappen. It's worth remembering that, aside from bettering an off colour Vettel in 2014, Ricciardo remains unproven in the greater scheme of things. Unless he can arrest the momentum of Verstappen, his reputation will suffer.
Speaking of Vettel, the former champion is also starting to look as though the sheen of Ferrari is wearing thin. Kimi Raikkonen had the upper hand in Brazil, out-qualifying Vettel and running ahead of him (at least, until he crashed!). Vettel was completely outwitted by Verstappen when the Red Bull came up behind him late in the race and, with just one opportunity left, Ferrari are staring at another winless season in a year where they were mooted to be genuine contenders for the crown. Now, they even seem to be behind the Red Bulls in terms of speed.
Abu Dhabi has been a happy hunting ground for both Vettel and Raikkonen. Perhaps one of them may be the thorn in Rosberg's side as he fights for a podium finish this weekend. Perhaps reliability may yet decide this year's title. Perhaps Rosberg may even crack under the pressure of achieving a result that, on paper, looks easy. Or maybe Rosberg will stamp his authority all over the final race of a season that has looked destined to be his since the lights went out in Australia back in March. I wouldn't bet against that.
Finally, this race witnesses the end of two fine driving careers - at least for now. Williams' Felipe Massa, who almost seemed to be given his send off after crashing out at home in Interlagos, says goodbye to F1 after 15 years this weekend. A popular and friendly man, the nearly champion, bows out at a venue where he finished on the podium two years ago. Unlikely to do the same this year, considering Williams' slight slip down the order since, but don't bet against Massa producing a high scoring points finish - he hasn't shown any signs of losing his touch yet. By contrast, Jenson Button looks as though he's counting down the days until he's free. Two years of racing an noncompetitive McLaren-Honda appear to have put out the fire that burned so intensely in the British driver, and the most experienced F1 pilot signs off this weekend after almost two full decades in the sport. While he's technically "on a year out", it's almost impossible to see him returning. Time marches on, and new blood is coming in in the form of Stoffel Vandoorne.
While F1 2016 hasn't been a classic, given the relatively noncompetitive nature of the front end of the grid for the third successive season, there's much to be excited about. The regulation changes for next season are likely to result in a shake-up, and who's to say Mercedes will get it right? This weekend may well mark the end of their dominance, before a new era begins where any of the teams could find an edge. The only thing that's a given ahead of this weekend is that one of the Mercedes boys is going home with the title, and finding out which one is going to be enthralling. Enjoy!
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