After 20 Grand Prix around the world in the last nine months, Formula One's longest season yet draws to a close this Sunday with the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi. Dubbed as the 'duel in the desert', the 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will also settle the season-long Nico Rosberg vs Lewis Hamilton debate.
The two Mercedes teammates have made the most of their car's superiority since 2014 to ensure that the World Drivers' Championship battle remains within the Mercedes garages. After losing to Hamilton in the last two seasons, current championship leader Rosberg seems almost certain to clinch his first-ever Drivers' Championship title from reigning World Champion Hamilton. But history has shown that title-deciding races are seldom normal. Remember the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix?
Back then, it was Felipe Massa who chased Hamilton successfully, but couldn't out-chase Lady Luck. This time, it will be a reverse as Hamilton is expected do the chasing. Given his recent surge in form, a race win for Hamilton seems most probable. But winning the race won't be enough to hand Hamilton his fourth Drivers' Championship title. There's only a 20 percent chance for Hamilton to win the Drivers' Championship and he needs either of the following cases to come true for Rosberg.
First, Rosberg fails to deliver the basic - a podium. While this seems least of all the reasons given Rosberg's consistency in 2016, there have been moments in the mid-season when he drove races not worthy for a world champion. If he performs the way he did in Austria (fourth), Monaco (sixth), Canada (fifth) or Germany (fourth), where Hamilton converted a 43 points deficit to a 19 points advantage, he will face his third straight title defeat to Hamilton despite starting the final race of the season with a 12 point advantage.
Second, Mercedes' reliability issues strike Rosberg. Fans have argued and Hamilton has pointed out often that he has borne the brunt of Mercedes' unreliability this season. Will the law of averages catch up with Rosberg? Will it be his engine? Or will it be a yet-to-be-solved clutch issue that will interfere in his race result? This also leads to a third and crucial case - a first corner incident. Rosberg seemed nervous while approaching the first corner in recent races (remember Mexico?) and will the 90 degree left hand corner in Abu Dhabi be a cause of trouble? We wonder who will it take from Mercedes to call the Verstappen family asking their youngster to keep away from the championship battle.
Can Nico Rosberg control his fate?
As for Rosberg, he would be aiming to win the race on Sunday and control the fate of his world championship hopes. If he does do so, it will be the first time a teammate has beaten Hamilton to the title. Given the above permutations and Mercedes' dominance, we would expect Rosberg to snatch the crown from Hamilton but not without a bit of drama all through the weekend. Make sure you tune in.
There's been much chatter about Rosberg and whether he would be a deserving world champion. His calculated race-by-race approach and mental strength has earned him a comparison with Alain Prost, a former four-times world champion. This approach has helped him compete with and keep his title hopes alive against Hamilton in the sport's longest season yet. Had the season been a typical 19 or 20 race calendar, the title would have already been Rosberg's.
Force India: best of the rest
The other battle that will conclude this weekend will be the one between Force India and Williams. The two mid-field teams have been locked in an all-season battle for fourth place, one that Force India currently leads by 26 points. Again, if the race plays out according to current form, this will be Force India's best finish in a career spanning nine years.
Season points finish
2008 0 10th
2009 13 9th
2010 68 7th
2011 69 6th
2012 109 7th
2013 77 6th
2014 155 6th
2015 136 5th
2016* 163 4th
*One race pending.
The team has scored 20 percent more points than 2015. But despite this stellar performance, it would be correct to assume that Williams and Mclaren, who should end the season as fifth and sixth respectively, will earn more from the sport than Force India due to 'historic bonuses' - an unequal (and unfair) payment logic by Formula One management. On the basis of unconfirmed data from 2015, Force India should approximately earn $77 million for 2016 - only $10 million more than last year, whereas Ferrari in third place could earn a staggering $100 million more.
Crucially, it would be important for Force India's future to finish fourth, just behind the big budget teams - Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull Racing. This will help improve their perception in the business and possibly attract more investments and better talent - engineering and racing. As Martin Brundle rightly said, "For pounds spent in Formula 1, they (Force India) are World Champions".
The 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will also be Force India veteran Nico Hulkenberg's last race with the team. The German has signed with Renault for next season. Hulkenberg's Force India stint will be remembered for his talent, performance and much elusive podium!
Thank you, Jenson
In an announcement that mirrored the sentiment and confusion of the Brexit vote, Jenson Button announced his retirement from Formula One after the end of the current season. This is after he took effort to convince everyone that 2017 would only be a sabbatical and that he would be back in the sport in 2018. We wonder if the fear of not having a farewell race (and party) prompted his decision. Remember Massa's emotional mid-race farewell in Brazil?
The battle for P4
With just five points separating Max Verstappen (192) and Sebastian Vettel (197), eyes will also be glued to the timing monitors on Race Day to see if Red Bull Racing's young prodigy is able to outscore and beat his much-annoyed senior Ferrari driver to fourth place. It would be a mean feat considering that Verstappen progressed to the much competitive Red Bull racing cockpit from Spain - four races into the season.
Either way, irrespective of which driver wins the Drivers' Championship in Abu Dhabi, there's good chance that Verstappen will win yet another 'Driver of the Day' award. We wonder if 2016 will be remembered more for Verstappen's arrival on the Formula One scene than the otherwise boring intra-team battle at Mercedes.
And by the way, catch Mithila Mehta and Zenia D'cunha on Facebook LIVE (on the Firstpost Sports Facebook page) on Saturday at 4.30 pm as they look forward to the much-anticipated 'duel in the desert'.