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The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Preview, 27-29 November 2015

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So the 2015 season is finally drawing to a close and while the action on track in Brazil may not have been the pinnacle of excitement, there will be plenty of entertainment to be had in Abu Dhabi for the grand finale. The organisers at Yas Marina are sure to put on a show for the world this weekend to remind us all why modern venues are holding their own against the more historic circuits.

The top three places in the 2015 Championship may have already been decided, as well as the Constructor’s title, but there are other battles to keep your eyes on this weekend, including the scramble for fourth place. The two Finns of Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas are only separated by a single point and have come together on track twice in the last four races.

Headlines from Brazil

Nico Rosberg makes it two in a row has he seals second place in the Championship. The German driver solidified his fifth pole position in a row at Interlagos, which is the best run of his career and looked determined all weekend to land another blow over his British team-mate and three time World Champion. Rosberg has been criticised over the past couple of seasons for not being able to put up a good enough fight when Hamilton has been faster, but the last two races in Mexico and Brazil have gone some way to rebuilding his reputation. Although Rosberg was the faster on Saturday again, it did look like his team-mate was quicker on race day, so to have held him off for 71 laps was another feather in his cap. If Nico can start the 2016 season the way he is finishing 2015, we will have a much closer title fight on our hands next year.

Hamilton and Vettel join Rosberg on a very familiar looking podium. Critics of Formula 1 only have to look at the podium in Sao Paulo to emphasize why interest is waning in the sport. Rosberg, Hamilton & Vettel have been the top three on nine occasions so far this year (50% of the season), whilst Mercedes have now finished one-two in 11 of the 18 Grand Prix’s. Not to mention the fact that there’s not been a single race this year where one of them has not been on the top step. This, of course, is not the drivers fault, but the rather uneventful Brazilian Grand Prix did leave us somewhat bemoaning the lack of a challenge at the top. We want to see more from Vettel’s team-mate, Red Bull Racing, the Williams pair and the veteran World Champions of JB and Fernando Alonso, who are far better drivers than their respective 14th and 15th places in Brazil suggest.

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Felipe Massa is controversially disqualified at his home Grand Prix. Home favourite and two times winner, Felipe Massa was given a DQ after the race for a tyre temperature infringement. It is said that the Brazilian driver had a tyre temperature of 27C above the permitted maximum before the start of the race on his right-rear. It is thought that this may have been caused by a tyre blanket malfunction, as heating the tyres to those temperatures is actually detrimental to the car and can cause blistering to the tyres, shortening their life-span. Massa finished eighth in the race, but after his disqualification, his points and race results will be wiped from the record. Although Williams initially said they would appeal the decision, they eventually decided to let it drop given the costs involved and the fact that it would not change their standings in the Constructors Championship.

Young guns continue to impress in the midfield battle. Behind the two Mercedes and Ferrari drivers came the next generation of Formula 1 racers: 5) Bottas, 6) Hulkenberg, 7) Kvyat, 8) Grosjean and 9) Verstappen. When you factor in Daniel Ricciardo and Carlos Sainz Jr (who didn’t have their best races in Brazil) as well, the future of F1 is certainly looking bright. Max Verstappen has already been touted as a future World Champion, even at the tender age of 18, whereas Kvyat has unexpectedly outscored his more senior companion at Red Bull this year. Bottas has often featured as the ‘best of the rest’ behind the Mercedes drivers in the last two seasons, making it onto the podium eight times in 2014-15, whereas Hulkenberg and Grosjean continue to impress in relatively uncompetitive cars. The result in Sao Paulo was a fantastic example of how these second tier drivers are all jostling for supremacy, but can any of them really stand up and make a name for themselves in 2016?

Ferrari decided to stick, but could they have twisted?

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Aerial shot of Ferrari World on Yas Island by Aziz J.Hayat, shared via the Creative Commons License.

Scuderia Ferrari will be racing at their adopted second home this weekend at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, right next door to where ‘Ferrari World’, the world’s largest indoor theme park is located. You cannot miss the Ferrari branding when you’re on Yas Island and the theme park helps keep Ferrari at the pinnacle of the sport in an emerging market, even if the Silver Arrows are more often than not on the top step nowadays.

So whilst ‘Ferrari World’ might just be a massive brand building exercise, we all know that results on the track are the real way that the Scuderia are judged. Which is why it came as quite a surprise back in the summer when Ferrari announced that they would be keeping the services of their number two driver, Kimi Raikkonen, for another year.

We all know that professional sportspeople only have a finite period at the top of their respective sports, before the inevitable woes of age slower the reflexes, dim the eyes and chip away at the motivation. Kimi is now 36 and looks a shadow of the racer that we saw explode onto the F1 scene in the early naughties with McLaren. Raikkonen has now had two very poor seasons in a row, firstly trailing Alonso, and now Vettel. Given the depth of quality in other cars behind Ferrari, there is certainly no shortage of drivers that could come in and make an impact.

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Names like Jules Bianchi, Valtteri Bottas and most recently Max Verstappen, have all been banded around a lot in the last two seasons in reference to the second seat at Ferrari. But just image the fireworks had Fernando Alonso stayed and partnered Sebastian Vettel this year. Certainly the Constructor’s Title fight with Mercedes would have been a lot closer you feel, because despite the fact that Alonso is only two years younger than Kimi, he is still showing the kind of form that brought him his two world titles. The 2007 World Champion looks a spent force in comparison.

In 2015, no other constructor has such a large point’s difference between its two drivers than Ferrari. Kimi trails Seb by a massive 131 points after 18 races. To put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of five race wins, and a bit more! To further outline the German’s superiority, he’s managed 13 podiums to Raikkonens two, not to mention his three race wins. The second biggest points total difference between drivers at this stage is at Mercedes, where you would have said that Lewis has been totally dominant until the last two race weekends, but they only have 66 points between them, almost exactly half that of the Ferrari drivers.

You might be surprised to hear that the third most dominant driver compared to his team-mate is Max Verstappen, who currently holds a 31 point advantage over fellow rookie Carlos Sainz Jr, followed next by Romain Grosjean who sits 22 points ahead of Lotus team-mate Pastor Maldonado.

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However, unlike Mercedes or McLaren, it looks like Ferrari are well aware of the disparity in their drivers and have retained them nonetheless, choosing a team ‘harmony’ over two evenly matched drivers that might win more, but also come to blows. Ferrari Team Principal Maurizio Arrivabene has recently said, “I am pleased that he has brought balance to the team… He (Raikkonen) pushes Sebastian very hard and that is very important.”

This seems to suggest that Ferrari are trying to breed a Champion in Vettel and simply want a support act who won’t rock the boat too much in their second car. That’s great for Sebastian, no wonder he’s all up for keeping Kimi as his partner, but will it harm Ferrari in the long term if they are not capable of producing a car to win a world championship soon?

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

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The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at Yas Marina has featured on the F1 calendar since 2009 and is the perfect climax to a sporting season like no other, visiting 19 locations across the four corners of the globe. The newly built circuit is set on the waterfront of Yas Island and provides a hugely satisfying juxtaposition between natural beauty and modern redevelopment. The circuit also houses a 5* hotel, a 60-metre solar powered Sun Tower and covered grandstands that protect spectators from the desert sun.

The track itself is just over 5.5km in length, has nine right-handers, 12 left-handers and is one of only a few F1 circuits to run anti-clockwise. It has the longest straight on the F1 calendar, but the Yas Marina Circuit is probably best known for its high speeds and distinctive turquoise blue run off areas, plus the fact that there is a newly built 5* hotel straddling the racetrack- the first time this has ever been done.

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Track Map of the Yas Marina Circuit by Arz, shared via the Creative Commons License.

The 2009 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was the inaugural race, but also marked the first ever twilight (day-night) race in Formula 1 history, being won by Sebastian Vettel. The German is the most successful driver around this $1.5bn track, having also been victorious in 2010 and 2013. There are only two other drivers who have tasted victory at Yas Marina Circuit, Kimi Raikkonen in 2012 and Lewis Hamilton in 2011 and 2014.

The 2014 race was a controversial affair, as it was the only race of the season where double points were awarded. This was the first time that Formula 1 had explored this system and was widely criticised. Title leader Lewis Hamilton won the race and secured the championship, which was probably the fairest conclusion to the season.

Predictions

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The Yas Viceroy Hotel, Abu Dhabi, overlooking the circuit by Rob Alter, shared via the Creative Commons License.

Lewis won his second world title in Abu Dhabi last year and will have hugely fond memories of the track, whereas Sebastian Vettel has won 50% of the races ever held at Yas Marina, and is still the only driver to have won from pole. He too will be looking forward to the final race of the year. In contrast, Nico Rosberg has yet to conquer the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but could 2015 be his year as the pressure of the title is now off?

You can certainly argue that he’s the form horse after five consecutive pole positions and back-to-back wins in Mexico and Brazil. However, his team-mate will certainly be looking to take one last win to bookend a season that he has dominated. Lewis tends to up the ante when it really matters, and although the points are relatively meaningless this weekend, he will want to lay down a marker for next year to remind the fans and the team that he is still number one.

Max Verstappen will be looking to continue his run of point’s finishes that now stretches back to Singapore so that he can go into 2016 already on a seven race scoring streak, and who could deny the young Dutchman when he’s driving so well.

If Mercedes finish one-two in Abu Dhabi, they will set a new record of achieving this feat 12 times in a season, previously eclipsing their own record from last year of 11, as well as McLaren’s 1988 season. Don’t rule it out.

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