The 2016 FIA F1 World Championship reaches its conclusion in Abu Dhabi this coming weekend following a marathon 21-race season that began in Australia back in March. It’s the last race for the current breed of cars, as next year we will have wider Pirelli tires, a revised high downforce aerodynamic package, and a different look.
To no one’s surprise, the third year of the hybrid formula has again been dominated by Mercedes, which clinched the constructors’ title in Japan last month. And, for a third year, it’s been all about the battle between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton.
The F1 title race might not be quite as unpredictable as NASCAR’s Chase format, but despite the record breaking length of the season we still have an exciting finale to look forward to, in stark contrast to last year. The odds favor Rosberg over Hamilton, but it’s not done yet.
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In 2014 their contest also concluded at the last race in Abu Dhabi, with Hamilton earning the second title of his career. Last year the Briton surged ahead early on, and it was clear well before the end of the season that he would be champion. However, Rosberg bounced back and ended 2015 on a high with a string of victories.
The 2016 season has been a return to two years ago, with fortune favoring first one and then the other, and the destiny of the title remaining in the balance. Rosberg started the year as he finished the previous one, earning a series of four wins, while Hamilton seemingly stumbled from one misfortune to the next. Then Lewis bounced back and began to build momentum, taking six victories in seven starts between Monaco and Germany. Indeed, in the middle of the year it seemed likely that he would wrap up the title well before the last race.
Then things began to go Rosberg’s way again, and he won four out of the next five. The Malaysian GP proved a crucial encounter, as Hamilton was leading easily when his engine failed and he lost 25 points, while Rosberg – delayed by first corner contact – gained further by moving up from fourth to third. As we headed toward the end of the season, Hamilton then won in the USA, Mexico and most recently in Brazil. However, Rosberg has kept scoring, and has retained a 12-point lead.
The numbers are pretty simple. Hamilton has to finish in the top three to have any chance of winning his third title. And if Rosberg makes the podium then the German will be champion, whatever Lewis does. If Hamilton is second, Rosberg has to be sixth or better, and if Lewis is third, Nico has to be eighth.
The bottom line is that something has to go wrong for Rosberg if Hamilton is to have any chance, which means a mechanical problem, a mistake, or perhaps a bad start from which he ultimately recovers only to fourth, or worse. It’s out of Hamilton’s hands.
“Nico’s doing all he has to do, he’s finished every race, not had any problems, whereas I have,” said Lewis after his Brazilian win. “I’m in an awkward position going into the last race. It doesn’t really make a big difference if I go and drive like I do right now, because I’ve already lost so much through the year. I can’t give up, because you never know what will happen. It’s unlikely, but you never know what will happen.”
Asked if he would be proud of potentially winning 10 races and not being World Champion, he added: “I am and I will be proud of myself, as long as I continue to perform as I am. And I’m proud of everyone who’s been a part of helping us win all these races. What a year, to have nine wins is amazing, and it’s my 31st win with the team, which is crazy. I’m just really, really thankful, these guys have given me such a great opportunity, and the majority of the time I’ve capitalized on it.”
Rosberg won in Abu Dhabi last year, and that will provide a confidence boost, but equally he will remember losing out to his teammate in the 2014 title showdown. He’s been on good form all year.
“I will give it everything to end the season with a win,” he says. “I've had a great week, relaxing and catching up with my family and friends, so I feel like I'm in a good place. In Brazil, after the race, I was joking that I would still be taking things one race at a time. But, the more I think about it, the more that's actually not as crazy as it sounds. I have to treat this like any other race. Doing a good job on a Grand Prix weekend is always a challenge. Nothing in this sport is easy, so this won't be any different and I still have to go all out for a good result.”
So what of the teams most likely to disrupt things for one or other of the Mercedes drivers – for example, take points off them if they have a bad start?
This has been a good year for Red Bull Racing after the team failed to win a race in 2015. The whole package has been much stronger, and for most of the season RBR has been the main challenger to Mercedes, and thus the team most likely to take advantage if and when the World Champions falter.
The arrival of Max Verstappen in May shook things up, and the Dutchman scored a shock win on his first outing in Spain after the Mercedes duo collided. Since then he’s been a major force, earning a string of podiums and cementing his reputation as a hard racer who takes no prisoners.
Daniel Ricciardo appeared to be knocked a little off kilter at first, and losing a potential win after a pit stop error in Monaco didn’t help. But since then the Australian has bounced back, and he was in the right place at the right time to win in Malaysia when Hamilton retired. He secured third in the World Championship a couple of races ago, while Verstappen is now just five points away from stealing fourth place from Sebastian Vettel, which will be a remarkable achievement.
Red Bull is no stranger to success in Abu Dhabi, having won with Vettel in 2009, 2010 and 2013. The German has since moved on to a new life at Ferrari. He won three races last season, but the Italian team has been largely overshadowed by Red Bull in 2016, especially in the second half of the year. The car simply hasn’t been fast enough, and that’s been compounded by strategic errors and a series of first lap incidents for Vettel – signs perhaps of the pressure to get results. The departure of technical director James Allison did not help.
Vettel earned early second places in China, Canada and Baku, but good results have been harder to come by since RBR’s surge. One intriguing aspect of the year is that Kimi Raikkonen has given his teammate a much stronger challenge, and has consistently scored well – to the point where he was battling with his teammate for fourth in the championship, although after crashing in Brazil he has now slipped 19 points behind.
Vettel has a great record in Abu Dhabi, having scored those three wins for Red Bull and taken two poles, while Kimi logged a surprise triumph with Lotus in 2012. However, as a team Ferrari has yet to win at Yas Marina.
Meanwhile, a feature of this season has been the battle for fourth between Force India and Williams – one that might not mean much to fans, but which carries a lot of prestige and well as extra dollars for the team that finishes in front. After a nip-and-tuck battle over recent races it was pretty much settled in Brazil when the gap was opened up to 27 points thanks to a fourth and seventh for Force India, but it’s still not quite done.
After a period of uncertainty, Sergio Perez finally committed to staying with the Silverstone outfit for 2017. In contrast, this will be Nico Hulkenberg’s final appearance with the team, before he moves to Renault. Both men have had good results in Abu Dhabi, with Perez earning fifth last year and Hulkenberg taking sixth the year before that.
At Williams, this will be the 250th and last ever F1 start for his teammate Felipe Massa, as the Brazilian calls time on a career that saw him come so close to winning the title back in 2008. He was second in Abu Dhabi in 2014, and will be hoping to go out on a high.
This will also be a big weekend for Jenson Button. While in theory the door is open for the Briton to return in 2018 after a sabbatical, few expect him to be back, so in reality this is likely to be the last start of an extraordinary career that began at Williams in 2000. Jenson had a good record here in the early days of the race – he finished third, third, third and fourth between 2009 and 2012 – and it would be great to see him sign off with a good result.