We come to it at last. On Sunday Round 21 of the 2016 Formula 1 season will determine the outside of the title race. Will Lewis Hamilton take his fourth crown? Or will Nico Rosberg claim his first title?
The odds favour Rosberg. No driver who has won at least the first four races of the season has failed to go on and win the championship. Rosberg has a 12 point lead and can secure the title by finishing on the podium – if he does, it doesn’t matter what Hamilton does – Rosberg will be champion. There are only two things which might prevent this: a mechanical failure, or an accident.
If the title is snatched from Rosberg because of a mechanical issue, it would be impossible to not feel a measure of sympathy for him. It has happened before (Mansell, Australia, 1986), and it would be a cruel twist of fate in a season where Rosberg has risen to the occasion and displayed a bit more resolve than in the past. This is not to say he’s had a perfect season – he has made mistakes of his own – but he has made less of them than his teammate Hamilton, and this might be the crucial factor come the end of the race.
Much has been made of Hamilton’s technical troubles this season, and it’s true that his races in China, Russia and Belgium were compromised as a result. Had he finished even second to Rosberg in China, this would have seen a points swing of 12 points in Hamilton’s favour, tying him and Rosberg going into the final race. Had Hamilton won in Malaysia (where he retired whilst leading) he would be leading the standings. However, these aren’t the only factors behind Rosberg’s advantage, and if Hamilton had owned the factors under his control, the situation would look very different, regardless of his mechanical issues.
Hamilton qualified on pole in Australia, but had a bad start and would eventually end up second. Had he converted his pole into a win, there would be a points swing of 14 in Hamilton’s favour, actually putting him into the lead by two points here in Abu Dhabi. The same thing happened in Bahrain and in Italy, with Hamilton finishing third and second respectively. Converting these poles into wins would have dramatically swung the title race in Hamilton’s favour, which is also true of his poor qualifying performance in Baku, where he finished fifth, having looked set for pole. Once again, even second to Rosberg here would put Hamilton in control of his own destiny – he would still trail Rosberg, but a win would see him crowned champion, no matter what Rosberg did.
There are many permutations like this throughout any given season, but the bottom line is that whoever wins on Sunday, will deserve to do so. So, what about the track itself?
Abu Dhabi transitions from day to night during the course of the race, which can sometimes be the only highlight at a venue that hasn’t really thrilled down the years. It was the scene of Sebastian Vettel’s first world championship back in 2010, and it settled the title race between Hamilton and Rosberg in 2014, but the races themselves haven’t been amazing. Turns 1-4 are a reasonable little sequence, and quite fast, but the bizzare decision to put a chicane in before the big hairpin unnecessarily slows down the cars and denies a potential overtaking opportunity.
There should be chances at turn 8 (which comes at the end of a long straight) and turn 11 (the end of another fast section of track), but beyond this, it’s going to take a measure of bravery to make anything work. The fast stretches should favour the Mercedes, so no one is likely to interfere with Hamilton and Rosberg.
There’s one final thought here. This race marks the final race for Felipe Massa and Jensen Button. Both have been consummate gentlemen during their time in the sport, and in their own way have contributed to some of the most dramatic moments – Massa just missed out on the 2008 title at the very last moment in Brazil, whilst Button’s win in Canada in 2011 was one of the most incredible races in recent times. I can’t go into too much detail here – but I will certainly try to at some point.
Roll on Sunday!