In Abu Dhabi this weekend Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg will – metaphorically at least – touch gloves like a couple of heavyweights as the bell chimes for the final round. The Mercedes duo’s slugfest for the Formula One world championship has endured for eight months and 20 rounds and the Yas Marina Circuit has got what it paid for: the decider.
Rosberg, with a 12-point lead, is the clear favourite to win his first title, for he has only to finish in the top three. It is the fifth time in eight years, since Hamilton snatched his first championship from the grasp of the home favourite, Felipe Massa, in São Paulo, that the title race has gone to the wire. Last year Hamilton got home in Austin with three races to spare but we were here in Abu Dhabi two years ago, the year of the double points fiasco, when Hamilton was required to finish in the top two – instead of the leading six – to take the championship; he won.
In 2012, in the last round in Brazil, Fernando Alonso led the race and the championship before Vettel came through to take his hat-trick of titles. And in 2010, continuing the two-year pattern, the last race was held in Abu Dhabi with the leader, Alonso, Mark Webber, Vettel and Hamilton all in contention; Vettel won.
There have been other, famous last race finishes, such as James Hunt’s drive in Fuji in 1976, which brought him the title, and the 1986 climax in Australia where three drivers, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet, all went into the final round with a chance, with Prost coming out on top after Mansell’s dramatic tyre failure.
This time it all looks very cosy for Mercedes, who have already won the constructors’ championship. But two wrecking balls loom over Hamilton and Rosberg in the shape of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, according to the three-times champion Sir Jackie Stewart.
Stewart told the Guardian: “I think the two Red Bulls cars will be very, very competitive. That’s what could decide the weekend. And the last race is also very important for Ferrari. A podium finish would be very big for them. So we have four drivers capable of disturbing Nico Rosberg from having what I would call a calculated race.
“But the big risk for Lewis and Nico is that the two Red Bulls will upset things. Verstappen is remarkably quick and the Australian lad is equally fast and considerably more experienced.
“I can see Verstappen making some moves that may not be in the repertoire of any of the other drivers. That could have a profound effect on the outcome.”
Stewart does not feel that Rosberg would be an undeserving champion. “He’s driven a very intelligent season. He’s clean, he’s tidy, and he’s served a big, long apprenticeship to get this far. You have to take your hat off to anybody who wins it. A lot of people who have won the title may not have been the greatest driver. The secret for Nico now is mind management. He can’t be overaggressive, overexcited or overambitious.”
The driver and TV pundit Paul di Resta, who this year ended a two-year absence from Formula One when he joined Williams as a reserve driver, says: “It is Nico’s title to lose. But the one danger for him is that he’s too cautious, as he was in Monaco, and maybe Malaysia, where he collided with Vettel.
“The other danger will come from Red Bull. In the last three races Mercedes haven’t had everything their own way. If the Red Bulls smell an overtake they will go for it. Both Mercedes drivers deserve it. Lewis has had more bad luck. But Nico has been more consistent. If he dominates qualifying and wins on Sunday he will have won more races than Lewis and there can be no arguments.”
Ben Edwards, Channel 4’s F1 commentator, is hoping that Hamilton does not just blame mechanical failures if he loses out. “Lewis has been a little unlucky. But then again life isn’t fair and it would be true to say that there have been a couple of occasions, in Baku and Singapore, where he hasn’t quite delivered.
“I can see him winning the race in Abu Dhabi and Nico taking the championship. But so many things can go wrong, as Lewis himself knows after problems with his car ultimately cost him the 2007 title. And Nico would be a worthy champion. He has nine wins already – his father, Keke, won only one race when he won the championship in 1982.”
Stewart, meanwhile, has more interest in the outcome of Sunday’s race than most. He and Hamilton are Britain’s greatest F1 champions, with three titles each, so Hamilton can move ahead of him this weekend.
Stewart says: “I wouldn’t be upset about it. I’ve had a long run. I’ve had the record for 43 years. When Alain Prost beat my record for most wins I had held it for a long time and I was very happy to be the most successful driver by beating the records of Jim Clark and Juan Manuel Fangio. So if Lewis takes four championships against my three I will have no regrets.”
So another title would make Hamilton the greatest British driver? Stewart is not so sure: “I don’t think that is an issue at this time. Mercedes have a huge advantage over everybody else.
“Lewis should be very grateful that he’s driving for a team with such resources and financial support, a team of great engineers with unquestionably the fastest engine. That kind of domination is unusual. I was lucky enough to drive in an era when everybody had the Ford Cosworth and there wasn’t a feared driver, or favoured team. It was a much more level playing field in those days. It was up to the driver to get the most out of the chassis.”
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