Here we are at the final round of another Formula One season where the title will be decided at the very end. After 20 rounds Nico Rosberg leads his Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton by 12 points setting up almost a story book situation.
While both drivers are fast, proven winners they are a study in contrasts. Hamilton has three World Championships under his belt, and is currently second on the all time wins/poles (52/61, respectively) lists. Rosberg is racing for his first, with a total of 23 wins and 30 poles. Of the two, Hamilton clearly is a more instinctual driver and has the edge in terms of raw speed and racecraft. He’s a natural.
Rosberg is more analytical and measured, a very intelligent team player. He’s put in a lot of work over the years and, if it weren’t Hamilton in the other car, he may well have already had a World Championship to his name.
His main weakness is in going wheel-to-wheel, especially with Hamilton. He has come off short virtually every single time in that Hamilton gets by him (e.g. Bahrain 2014, US 2015, Austria 2016, etc.) or they both go off (e.g. Spain 2016). This gets amplified in wet conditions such as at the Monaco and British races this year. Granted he may have had brake trouble in Monaco, but the contrast is amplified because Hamilton excels in the wet.
Hamilton, on the other hand, while having matured over the years into a more consistent driver over the course of a season, still has a hard time dealing with the media and seems prone to inserting his foot in his mouth. After ten seasons it’s clear that’s one of his bigger liabilities and he’s better off doing his talking on the track.
The battle between the two has become closer over the past four years as Rosberg has trended stronger. During their first season as teammates in 2013 when neither Mercedes driver was in contention for the championship, he trailed Hamilton by 26 points going into the final round.
In 2014 he was behind Hamilton by 17 points going into the last race. Rosberg’s car suffered an Energy Recovery System (ERS) failure during the race and that put an end to his title hopes, with Hamilton taking his second World Championship.
Last year Hamilton successfully defended his title by wrapping up the title with three races to go. After that, he seemed to back off while Rosberg began a string of six poles and seven wins spanning the tail end of 2015 and the early part of this season.
Thus far this season Rosberg has eight poles and nine wins to Hamilton’s 12 and nine, respectively. This is the first time Rosberg has gone into the final round with the lead, and a comfortable one at that.
While there are many possible permutations of outcomes that could lead to either driver being crowned the 2016 champion, since the Mercedes team is so dominant it is effectively a two horse race. Hamilton must score 13 points more than Rosberg to retain the title. Probable outcomes include:
Hamilton wins, Rosberg finishes second. Rosberg is champion. There have been seven Mercedes 1-2 finishes this year, three of them in the last three races.
Hamilton wins, Rosberg finshes third. Rosberg is champion. There have been five Mercedes 1-3 finishes this year.
However, if Hamilton wins and Rosberg finishes fourth or worse then Hamilton is champion. Rosberg has finished fourth or worse five times this year.
So the odds are that Rosberg will take the title. However, there are plenty of possible unknowns such as potential mechanical or pitstop problems for either driver (Mercedes’ nightmare scenario), competition from other front running teams notably Red Bull and Ferrari, a backmarker situation, or sudden changes in track conditions.
Red Bull’s drivers are the fast, young guns of F1. Neither driver has won a championship with Daniel Ricciardo in his fifth full season and nineteen year old Max Verstappen in his second full season, Verstappen having only received his road license last year.
Both drivers are very fast and will be doing their best to give everyone else a run for their money. Ricciardo has finished every race of the season and clinched third in the championship. Verstappen had what Martin Brundle called the “save of the century” for keeping his aquaplaning car off the wall in torrential conditions at the Brazilian GP two weeks ago, and then passing a slew of cars to finish on the podium.
However, their Renault engines don’t seem on par with the Mercedes (is any other engine?) so their best chance of getting in the mix is to make a demon start.
Ferrari, on the other hand, has F1 veterans Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen with five world championships and 62 race wins between them. Vettel is underperforming somewhat against expectations, as is the team as a whole, and surely wants to close out the season on a high. Surviving the first lap without incident would go a long way toward that.
Raikkonen has been going well this season but for the crash in Brazil. Amazingly, when Raikkonen started in F1 he raced against Max’s father Jos, and Max was just three years old.
Like Red Bull, Ferrari’s best chance of getting in the mix would be at the start. However, its power units seem to offer a little more grunt than those of Red Bull so they may have slightly more race pace.
Other situations that could throw a wrench in the works for the title contenders are backmarkers and track conditions. If either driver gets tangled up with lapped traffic or debris, or there is a safety car period that requires a restart then there are more risks.
Since Abu Dhabi is a night race in the desert the weather hasn’t really been a factor in years past. The impact tends to be limited to the effects of cooling temperatures on tire and brake wear as the night goes on. Rain is very unlikely.
All this adds up to make the best of another season where Mercedes ran away with the Constructor’s title. I fully expect Mercedes to be a front runner next year because it’s a great team with resources in place, and probably has had the luxury of starting car development early since it was so dominant this year it could halt development of this year’s car early. But let’s hope the rule changes of 2017 make the racing a lot more competitive and jumble the order a bit.