F1’s duel in the desert

Five storylines to watch as the curtain falls on the 2016 F1 season in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

The longest season in Formula One history comes to a cracking conclusion under the desert stars of Abu Dhabi this Sunday, where Mercedes teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton will go head-to-head to settle the title of 2016 world champion. That’s the headline act for the 21st and final race of the season, but there are plenty more storylines to keep an eye on under lights this weekend. Namely these.

Hamilton’s hard task

We mentioned the other storylines, but let’s pause on the main one. Rosberg leads Hamilton by 12 points coming into the last race of the year, and if he can finish on the podium – which the German has done for the past 11 races – then the title is his no matter what Hamilton does on Sunday. Only once has Rosberg not finished this season – the Spanish Grand Prix, where the Silver Arrows teammates conspired to trip over one another four corners into the race – and the last time Rosberg didn’t make the podium was round nine in Austria, where another clash with Hamilton, this time on the last lap, saw him drag his broken car across the line for fourth.

Hamilton may only have one more non-finish on his 2016 stat sheet than Rosberg, but it was the second of those – an engine blow-up while comfortably leading in Malaysia – that might have been the final straw. Hamilton has had the worst of Mercedes’ unreliability issues this season – as well as Malaysia, he had engine dramas compromise his qualifying in China and Russia – which means he’s either been desperately unlucky, Rosberg is due for some pain of his own, or a mixture of both. Both drivers have won nine races this season, and while Hamilton comes in as the man in form after winning the past three Grands Prix, he’ll need a little help from his teammate if he’s to take the title for a fourth time.

Thank you, and goodnight

As the final race of the season, Abu Dhabi will be where several drivers say goodbye to their current employers this weekend. Nico Hulkenberg will drive for Force India for the final time before heading to Renault, while Renault’s Kevin Magnussen will step out in yellow for the last time before heading to Haas. The man he’ll replace, Esteban Gutierrez, hasn’t got his 2017 F1 future sorted out yet after being jettisoned by the American team, while young Frenchman Esteban Ocon will finish up his short stint at Manor to take Hulkenberg’s ride at Force India. But two bigger names making their farewells will hog the headlines this weekend, and with good reason.

Jenson Button will race for the final time for McLaren ahead of his 2017 sabbatical, and perhaps for the final time in F1 full stop. While the 2009 world champion’s future is unclear, what isn’t is that Felipe Massa’s 250th Grand Prix will be his last, the Brazilian veteran bowing out on Sunday night after racing for Williams one final time. It surely won’t be as emotional as Massa’s walk back to the pits after crashing out of his home race in Brazil a fortnight ago, but there’ll be plenty of people lining up to pat Massa (and Button) on the back after long, popular and successful F1 careers.

The fight for fourth

Daniel Ricciardo separated himself from the chasing pack to establish himself as the best of the rest behind the all-dominant Mercedes duo this season, his eighth podium of the year in Mexico two races ago ensuring he couldn’t be caught for third in the drivers’ standings for the second time in three seasons.

The three-way battle behind the affable Aussie for fourth has been harder to read, with Sebastian Vettel (197 points) coming to Abu Dhabi just ahead of Max Verstappen (192) after the Dutchman’s incredible performance in Brazil a fortnight ago. Kimi Raikkonen (178) might be too far back after coming a cropper at Interlagos, but has two Abu Dhabi podiums to his credit, his 2012 win for Lotus the occasion of his “leave me alone, I know what I’m doing” rant that almost broke the internet.

The long straights into slow corners of the Yas Marina circuit appear to play more into Ferrari’s hands than help the Red Bull, but who would dare underestimate Verstappen after his once-in-a-generation drive in Brazil?

Third time lucky?

Abu Dhabi 2016 marks the third time the title will be decided at Yas Marina, and we’re due a gripping race after the first two fell flat. The 2010 decider broke new ground in that we had four drivers (Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, Vettel and Hamilton) in mathematical contention for the crown at the last race of the season for the first (and only) time, but the race never reached any great heights after Webber pitted early after a poor first stint, Ferrari covered him with an early stop for championship leader Alonso, and Vettel capitalised on his two title rivals being stuck in traffic and unable to overtake to cruise to victory and take the championship, leading the standings for the only time all season after the final race.

In 2014, with the dark cloud of double points threatening to turn the final race of the year into a farce, Hamilton came into the decider with a 17-point lead over Rosberg, but the German’s car was crippled with an ERS failure and he faded to 14th place, Hamilton taking an untroubled 11th win for the year and his second title in a largely processional affair. We can only hope for better this weekend.

Two is better than one

2-1 sounds more like a football score than a stat relevant to F1, but Felipe Nasr’s ninth place for Sauber at his home Grand Prix in Brazil last time out saw the Swiss squad score its first two points for 2016 – and edge ahead of Manor for 10th place in the constructors’ standings. Should Sauber stay there after Sunday’s race, the team will qualify for a championship payment of around 35 million Euros, a huge boost for a team that has struggled for financial stability in recent times, and went through a significant ownership re-structure before the Hungarian GP in July. For Manor, which headed Sauber from round nine in Austria onwards after Pascal Wehrlein finished 10th at the Red Bull Ring, Brazil was a cruel, cruel blow. Take a glance from the action at the front of the field to see what Sauber and Manor are doing in Abu Dhabi – and consider the enormity of what one point can mean.

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