Five things to look out for at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

The 2016 Formula 1 season will reach its thrilling conclusion as the pinnacle of motorsport visits the last of 21 circuits on the calendar this weekend. The glamour and bright lights of the Yas Marina Circuit will provide a fitting backdrop for the final act of the season-long struggle between title protagonists Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. However, while all the action will understandably be on the Mercedes pair, there will be a variety of things up and down the grid to keep an eye on…

Number 33? Or Number 5?

All the speculations, conjectures and theories about the outcome of the 2016 title battle will be put to bed and replaced by cold, hard facts on Sunday.

Should Nico Rosberg convert his 12-point advantage to a title victory, he will become the 33rd driver in the sport’s history to claim the coveted crown. The German only needs to finish in third place to secure his place amongst the sport’s champions, even if Hamilton were to win the race.

That may seem like a simple objective, and one that Rosberg should, on paper at least, easily accomplish. However, a myriad of outside factors, such as reliability issues (especially in the heat of the desert), a collision at the start or a botched pit stop can undo all his efforts from the season’s first 20 races.

For Hamilton, a last-gasp comeback to claim his fourth world title would see him become only the fifth driver to triumph on at least four separate occasions. While the Briton’s glittering career already places him firmly in the highest echelon of the sport’s great champions, a fourth crown would place him in a stratosphere that few other drivers have even caught a glimpse of.

To be frank, whether he achieves this feat is outside Hamilton’s hands, but he can only do his best, which would mean winning the race and seeing where that leaves him come Sunday evening.

Could Red Bull play a role?

Max Verstappen Daniel Ricciardo

Red Bull have made remarkable progress on all fronts over the course of the season and have been rewarded for their efforts with two race victories and a whole hatful of podium finishes.

The Austrian squad expect that they will be fighting Mercedes for race victories on a regular basis next season. As such, they have been making a conscious effort in the last few races to put the German manufacturer under pressure on the strategy front in the hope of inducing a mistake from the Silver Arrows squad.

This weekend will be no exception as they seek to finish their 2016 campaign on a high note. Both Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen will doubtlessly be seeking to maximise their own results, with little regard for the effect that they may have on the title duel.

In short, Red Bull have a strong package, and with both the Mercedes drivers likely to be suffering from some form of title showdown-related nerves, the team from Milton-Keynes will be eager to pounce on any hint of weakness shown by either of the Silver Arrows pilots.

Force India to finish best of the rest?

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Force India have made steady progress during their relatively short time in Formula 1. The Silverstone-based squad joined the grid in 2008 and finished in last place that season, with zero points.

Over time, however, they have found success and moved themselves firmly into the middle of the pecking order. The 2016 season has been their best so far, as they stand on the verge of securing fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship in Abu Dhabi, which would represent their highest-ever finish come the end of the season.

The only way for Force India to be demoted to fifth place would be for Williams (who have been their biggest rivals over the course of the season) to outscore them by 28 points this weekend, which is highly unlikely. It will take something special for the team to consistently trouble the current top three teams (Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari) given the financial clout and manpower enjoyed by the front-running outfits.

However, Force India can look back at a well-executed 2016 season (which included two podium finishes for Sergio Perez, in Monaco and Baku, respectively) with immense satisfaction.

Crunch time for Nasr and Gutierrez

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The number of available seats on the 2017 grid has decreased dramatically of late, with several teams confirming their driver pairings for next season.

Felipe Nasr and Esteban Gutierrez represent the only two drivers on the 2016 grid who do not have certainty over their fate for next year. While it is technically true that Manor have yet to announce that Pascal Wehrlein will remain with them for next season, it is widely-expected that the German youngster will be staying at the Banbury-based squad.

As such, this weekend represents the last chance for both Nasr and Gutierrez to make their cases for one of the remaining open seats. For Nasr, his heroic point-scoring drive in Brazil two weekends ago may see him retained by Sauber, where he has been since the start of 2015.

For Gutierrez, that would leave only a seat at Manor available, given that he will be replaced at Haas by Kevin Magnussen. Of course, there are a variety of young talents from lower formulae who are all eager to get their chance at the top level, which may mean that the Mexican may be the one without a seat when the music stops. Such an outcome would represent Gutierrez’ second departure from F1, as he was left out in the cold at the end of 2014 after two seasons at Sauber.

Goodbye to Formula 1’s gentleman

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This weekend’s race will mark the end of Jenson Button’s time in Formula 1, with the 2009 world champion announcing that he is unlikely to return to the grid in 2018 after taking a sabbatical next year.

After a career involving over 300 race starts, 15 victories, 50 podium finishes and a world title, the Briton will be remembered as one of the more successful drivers of his time.

However, he will also be remembered as a well-liked character in the paddock who slipped easily into the role of the sport’s elder statesman in the same way that Graham Hill did in the 1960’s. It seems that for Button, what began as hunger to reach the top over 15 years ago has finally given way to contentment and satisfaction with a memorable career.

It is unfortunate that the Briton will not be ending his career in a car capable of fighting at the front, but all in all, the man from Frome can bow out from the pinnacle of motorsport with dignity and class, a luxury that is certainly not afforded to all the sport’s participants.

Adriaan Slabbert

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