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Abu Dhabi - What to Watch for, and the title permutations

23 Nov 2014

Some people may think that there is only one thing to watch in Sunday's season finale in Abu Dhabi - the world title showdown between Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg - but there are several other storylines well worth savouring.

We break down the key themes to look out for at Yas Marina…

Rosberg looking for help from Williams

"I'm paying for a wellness night for him tonight, a spa session, all-inclusive, hoping that he can be in extra special form and do the impossible tomorrow." Nico Rosberg was only half joking when he announced the offer he was putting to Valtteri Bottas after qualifying, but in truth the German knows he may need the Finn's assistance if he's to wrest the drivers' title away from Mercedes team mate Lewis Hamilton.

Despite Williams getting closer than expected to Mercedes in qualifying, the Silver Arrows are expected to have the edge in terms of race pace, and therefore unreliability might be Hamilton's biggest concern in a Grand Prix where he can afford to finish second to Rosberg. Barring that, polesitter Rosberg's best hope might be for one or both of the Williams to jump Hamilton – second on the grid - at the start. If they do, the straight-line pace of the Mercedes-powered FW36 might make it tough for the Briton to get back past.

Of course both these permutations rely on Rosberg getting a good getaway, enjoying strong reliability and winning the race, but it's worth remembering that of the five previous Grands Prix at Yas Marina, only one has seen the victor start from pole position.

What's clear is that this is going to be an enthralling race from start to finish and one that you won't want to take your eyes off for a second - unless it's to check on the various title race permutations…

How the world title will be decided in Abu Dhabi

- If Rosberg wins in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton must finish second to be champion

- If Rosberg is second, Hamilton must finish fifth or higher

- If Rosberg is third, Hamilton must finish sixth or higher

- If Rosberg is fourth, Hamilton must finish eighth or higher

- If Rosberg is fifth, Hamilton must finish ninth or higher

- If Rosberg is sixth or lower, Hamilton is champion

Intense battle for fourth in the drivers' championship

The scrap between Hamilton and Rosberg will naturally take centre stage on Sunday, but they aren't the only drivers fighting it out for championship position. Over 150 points further down the standings, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel and Williams' Valtteri Bottas are involved in a tight squabble for fourth place.

Vettel holds a slender two-point advantage over Alonso heading into the double points season finale, with Bottas just a single point further point back. But it's the Finn, who's desperate to get the better of his more experienced, more decorated rivals, who'll start the furthest forward on Sunday.

Given the pace of the Mercedes-powered Williams in qualifying, it's likely to be extremely difficult for Alonso to mount a challenge to Bottas in normal circumstances - and near impossible for Vettel after he was excluded from qualifying. However, as we've seen on numerous occasions this season, Alonso tends to race far better than he qualifies.

And don't forget, this race marks the last time that Vettel and Alonso will compete for their respective teams, and given the emotion of the occasion, neither driver will want to bow out on a low.

Last chance for Button and Magnussen to stake McLaren claim

McLaren chief Ron Dennis has stated on several occasions in Abu Dhabi that no decisions have been made on the team's 2015 driver line-up, though if rumours are to be believed it's only a matter of time before Fernando Alonso's return to Woking is announced.

So, with one potential seat open at McLaren and a final decision yet to be made on who will fill it, Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen can expect to have their every action scrutinized in Sunday's race. As if that weren't enough pressure, Stoffel Vandoorne - the team's reserve driver, and another driver thought to be in the mix for a 2015 race seat - won Saturday evening's GP2 race at Yas Marina in impressive style.

Of the two current drivers, Button - who has admitted this could be his final Grand Prix - was the more impressive in qualifying, making the top-ten shootout before eventually setting the eighth best time - not bad considering he missed most of Friday's running with technical issues. Magnussen, by contrast, was disappointed at missing Q3, but will take comfort from the fact that by qualifying 11th he can choose his starting rubber. The Danish rookie will also be buoyed by the knowledge that he has considerably more long-run experience on both tyres than his team mate, by virtue of his trouble-free Friday.

"There's no reason why both our drivers shouldn't notch up decent results tomorrow," said racing director Eric Boullier after qualifying. The question is, which driver will end the season with the upper hand?

Vettel and Ricciardo face an uphill battle

Sebastian Vettel might have been dreaming of a podium finish in his final race for Red Bull, but hopes of a fairy-tale ending were dashed on Saturday evening when the German and team mate Daniel Ricciardo were excluded from qualifying after FIA stewards found that their front wings were flexing excessively.

After being sent to the back of the grid, Vettel and Ricciardo will now have to fight their way through the field if they're to score any points. Funnily enough, Vettel has been in a similar position at Yas Marina before - in 2012 the four-time world champion qualified third but was forced to start from the pit lane after failing to provide a fuel sample following Q3. On that occasion he came through to finish third, though it's worth noting that the RB8 he was driving was the class of the field - something that can't be said of the RB10.

Recovery drives require tenacity and decisive attitude to overtaking, and these are qualities that both Vettel and Ricciardo have exhibited in spades over the years. However, breaking into the points might be the limit of what's possible on Sunday.

Sauber's final chance of points…

Since entering Formula One racing in 1993, Sauber have never gone a full season without scoring points - but they stand on the inglorious brink of ending that run in Abu Dhabi. Sauber will therefore be facing their own desert showdown.

Qualifying suggested that breaking into the top 10 could prove difficult on raw pace alone, with Adrian Sutil in 15th and Esteban Gutierrez mired two spots further down. Both men will move up two spots as a result of Red Bull's exclusion, but even so the team are under no illusions about how difficult it will be to prevent 2014 becoming their worst ever season.

"Even before the event it was clear that this race weekend would not be an easy one for us," was the verdict of team principal Monisha Kaltenborn. "This track clearly shows the deficiencies of our overall package. However, this doesn't mean that we are giving up for the race. Some of our competitors are within reach, so our goal must be to deliver the best possible result."

Points - and moving up from 10th in the constructors' championship - are imperative, but perhaps unlikely.

…and Vergne's final shot to secure his future?

While much of the paddock speculation about 2015 driver moves has centred on Jenson Button's future at McLaren, Jean-Eric Vergne is very much fighting for his own Formula One career over at Toro Rosso.

Still only 24, Vergne remains in contention to partner Max Verstappen at the Italian team next year - with the choice appearing increasingly to be a straight shootout between the Frenchman and Formula Renault 3.5 champion Carlos Sainz Jr, who will drive for Red Bull on the first day of the post-race test at Yas Marina. Starting from 10th on the grid, Sunday is therefore Vergne's last opportunity to impress in a race situation. Fail to do so, and it could be his final F1 act for the time being.

Stevens determined to enjoy his moment

"I had been waiting for this day to arrive for a very long time," Caterham rookie Will Stevens said after his first runs in a Grand Prix weekend on Friday. "I'm happy with my race weekend so far - it's definitely a steep learning curve, but I'm ready for the challenge." That sentiment has embodied Stevens' approach to his F1 race debut - calm and methodical. The Formula Renault 3.5 race winner has built up gradually over the first two days, to the extent that he was matching Kamui Kobayashi in qualifying all the way until an error at Turn 17.

He will line up alongside his team mate on Sunday (the pair starting 16th and 17th), and while unlikely to feature anywhere near the sharp end, the Briton is determined to savour the moment. "We will all do our best as we want to show all the fans out there how much their support means to us," he says. "I feel comfortable and I just need to keep a cool head and enjoy my first ever Formula One race tomorrow."