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Abu Dhabi preview - Who will throw down the gauntlet for 2016?

26 Nov 2015

Can Nico Rosberg make it a hat-trick by dominating Lewis Hamilton in this year's season finale, and thereby throw down the gauntlet for 2016? Can Hamilton, a third world championship crown already secured, finally respond to his Mercedes team mate's upturn and regain the upper hand? Or can Ferrari come to the fore for a fourth time in warm climes? The title might already be decided, but there's plenty to play for - not least critical momentum ahead of next year...

Nowhere is that more true than at Mercedes. Rosberg's run of five straight poles and two victories might just be a quirk of the natural ebb and flow of the season - but if the run continues in Abu Dhabi, he will head into the off-season full of confidence that he has unlocked something in his fight with Hamilton. 

The Briton, of course, will be looking to shut Rosberg down, and thereby spare himself a fresh wave of questions and doubts over the winter. Make no mistake - there is more than just pride at stake between the pair.

"Last year, this place brought probably the most intense weekend of my life," Hamilton admits. "I didn't sleep much through nerves and not knowing what was ahead. But this time around there's no pressure, so I'll be well-rested and aiming to go out on a high.

"A lot of British fans come out to Abu Dhabi so it's like another home crowd for me. To win for them and show how grateful I am for the fantastic support I've had all year would be the best way to end an incredible season.

"Yas Marina is a really challenging circuit - there are a couple of high-speed corners but it's mostly medium- to low-speed, so despite the long straights you need to set the car up with a downforce level tuned for low-speed grip. It really is a stunning place to hold the season-ending Grand Prix."

Hamilton also has previous form on his side in Abu Dhabi - he has won the Grand Prix twice, whereas Rosberg has just one podium, a third place in 2013. For the German, though, pole last year means expectations are high.

"I've had two really great weekends now in Mexico and Brazil, so I'm heading into the final race on a massive high," he says.

"Abu Dhabi hasn't always been an easy one for me. Of course, last year was probably my biggest disappointment - losing the title at the last moment with a mechanical problem. But I showed my speed there with pole position and I have good momentum behind me right now, so I'm aiming to end the season on a big positive this time around."

And while the Mercedes pair are understandable fixated on each other, everyone at the team is also aware of the looming threat of Ferrari. Sebastian Vettel didn't figure in a fight for the lead last time out in Brazil, but he was equally closer to Hamilton than the Briton was to Rosberg at the chequered flag. The Scuderia are coming on strong - and Abu Dhabi will give us a tantalising glimpse into just how competitive they can hope to be in 2016.

"We were closer than many, many races previously, so I think that shows our real standing right now," Vettel said after Interlagos. 

"I think in general if you look at the beginning of the season to now we are a lot closer. We've improved on the engine side, the motoristi in Maranello have done a miracle this year."

Down at Red Bull, it's decision time… again. The team's long-running engine saga is still to be fully resolved, but they have of course filed an entry for next season - and signed new sponsors on multi-year contracts.

And while that situation continues to rumble on, the team also have the more immediate concern of deciding which specification of Renault power unit to run this weekend. In Interlagos Daniel Ricciardo was equipped with the latest version of the ICE, but was distinctly underwhelmed - and there are suggestions the team could revert back to the old power unit for the 2015 finale.

"We have to look at the aftermath of the Brazil weekend of one engine in one car, understand where we are, and form some conclusions and some decisions for Abu Dhabi as to whether we continue at the same level, try to push one step further or even if we go one step backwards if it is not satisfactory at this point of time," says Renault's F1 managing director Cyril Abiteboul.

"I think there is more to come from the elements than we have seen, and again we are not making use of all the hardware that is now available."

In the background, of course, is the chance that Renault might announce their return as a works team from 2016 this weekend. With Red Bull also wanting to be in a position to reveal their 2016 engine plans, it could be a very significant weekend for Formula One racing.

Down at Marussia, it will be momentous for very different reasons as sporting director Graeme Lowdon and team principal John Booth prepare for an emotional final weekend following their recent resignations. The pair were founders of the team in its Virgin Racing days back in 2009, and fundamental to the rescue package put in place ahead of the current campaign.

On track, Pirelli have brought the two softest tyres in their range - the yellow-marked soft and red-marked supersoft - to handle the wide range of demands encountered during the race. Not only is the circuit incredibly smooth, but the fact the Grand Prix is held at twilight means track temperatures tend to drop over the course of the race, creating a different pattern of tyre behaviour which can massively affect strategy.

The first part of the circuit effectively consists of a series of non-stop bends, which heats up the tyre compound. The compound then gets a chance to cool down on the long straight, with the cars on full throttle for around 15 seconds, generating the equivalent of around 800 kg of downforce.

"With the championships decided the teams can obviously push to the maximum and our tyre choice in Abu Dhabi provides them with an interesting challenge," says motorsport director Paul Hembery. 

"While the surface is very smooth, the tyres are still pushed quite hard due to the track layout, so tyre management becomes an important part of the strategy, particularly under acceleration in the traction areas, where it is very easy to spin the wheels. This is the same nomination as last year, so we'd probably expect another two-stop race, but track temperatures can be quite variable as the sun goes down and this can clearly have an effect on the tyres and therefore strategy."

The weather is forecast to be settled throughout the weekend, with temperatures in the range of 29 to 31 degrees Celsius.

Sunday's race will run over 55 laps or 305.470 kilometres, and will start at 1700 local time (1300 GMT).