A last hurrah - and a crucial marker for 2016
It was Nico Rosberg who perhaps summed up the mood of the entire paddock ahead of the 2015's final Grand Prix. “Primarily I want to win,” the German admitted after capturing a sixth straight pole, “but it helps to finish on a high. Whatever we learn this year goes into 2016, so I want to give my whole crew a great end to the season - and a good reason to party!”
As Rosberg conveyed, pride will undoubtedly be at stake on Sunday for every driver - but there are also far more significant elements in play. Freed from any potential concerns about engine usage, or general conservatism, drivers will be going all out in Abu Dhabi to secure a strong result. Success spells a contented off-season; failure a potential winter of discontent.
Hamilton and Rosberg’s fight is one of the most intriguing, in part because the stakes are highest. Hamilton romped to the 2015 title, sweeping Rosberg away at the start of the year - but in the last few races, it is the German who has enjoyed the upper hand. Win in Abu Dhabi and Rosberg will drive home the conviction that he has found something extra lately - something that will give Hamilton plenty of food for thought for next year. Would that give Rosberg a crucial mental edge? Or can Hamilton derail the accelerating Rosberg juggernaut?
For once it doesn’t matter that the title isn’t on the line.
Can Vettel stage a repeat of 2012?
Back in the 2012 race at Yas Marina, Sebastian Vettel carved his way through the field to third after a technical infringement in qualifying relegated him to the back of the grid. This year, after a mix-up in qualifying saw him eliminated in Q1, the four-time world champion will need a similarly epic rise if he’s to crown a stellar debut season at Ferrari with a record-breaking 14th podium finish.
It’ll certainly be an extremely hard task, but it would be foolish to think it an impossible one. For a start, there are two long DRS zones in Abu Dhabi which will afford Vettel ample opportunity to make some overtakes. Add to that the fact that Ferrari’s race pace was extremely competitive on Friday - better than Hamilton’s and on a par with Rosberg’s - it’s not out of the question that the German could be challenging towards the sharp end of the top ten with team mate Kimi Raikkonen.
Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene has urged the Prancing Horse to “finish the season in style”, and a charging drive from their new star could be just the ticket.
Podium once more in Perez’s sights
No driver outside the top five has taken more points than Force India’s Sergio Perez over the last eight races. Team mate Nico Hulkenberg has been out-scored 53-28 over the same period. And, of course, there was that podium in Russia. The Mexican is in arguably the form of his life.
The run looks set to continue in Abu Dhabi, with Perez only narrowly missing out on what would have been a career-best third place on the grid. Even so, fourth matches the best result he has ever achieved, and leaves him primed to capitalise on Sunday - especially given that he has gained a total of 29 places from start to finish in races this year.
As Perez himself acknowledged, on pure pace both Mercedes and Ferrari have the upper hand on Force India. He also dismissed talk of any tyre advantage, saying their degradation levels have been quite poor. Rather than talking down his chances, however, Perez said he was more determined than ever to nail his start and make up ground. Do so, and a second podium of the season could be on the cards.
Strategy open - but does Raikkonen have an ace up his sleeve?
As in previous races, there is almost nothing to choose - in theory at least - between a two-stop and three-stop plan. The difference could be as small as a handful of seconds over a race distance, with two-stopping having a slight edge.
For that to work, drivers would have to stop around laps 10 and 32, taking on softs on each occasion. For a three-stopper, meanwhile, expect stops around laps 7, 23 and 39 - with softs again the preferred option for each stint.
There could be a wildcard to all this, however, in the form of Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn was the only man to get through Q1 on the softs, meaning he - and he alone - has a new set of the red-marked tyre for the race. With Raikkonen a very credible threat to Mercedes on Sunday, do Ferrari have something up their sleeve to try and spring victory in the 2015 finale?
Final championship battles to be decided
The main championship fights have long been settled, but there are still several prestigious and valuable positions up for grabs. In the drivers’ stakes the biggest squabble is over fourth place, with Williams' Valtteri Bottas holding a one-point advantage over aforementioned fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen heading into the final race.
Bottas has stated on numerous occasions that he’d love to finish P4 in the standings, but it’s Raikkonen - who has said he’s not bothered if he ends the year fourth or fifth - who secured the better grid slot of the two, and (on Friday’s running) would appear to have the better race pace…
Daniel Ricciardo, meanwhile, will likely need a large chunk of good fortune to overhaul Red Bull team mate Daniil Kvyat’s 10-point advantage in the battle for P7.
Over in the constructors’ championship it’s set to go down to the wire between Lotus and Toro Rosso to see who’ll claim sixth in the final standings, with the former holding a slender nine-point lead with one race to run. However, Toro Rosso hold the ace cards in terms of grid position and Lotus’s reliability remains shaky, so it could go either way. With prize money as well as prestige at stake, both teams will be desperate to prevail.
McLaren fast - except in the quick bits…
If there was one statistic that encapsulated McLaren’s performance around the Yas Marina Circuit, it came via the speed trap. In qualifying trim, neither Jenson Button nor Fernando Alonso managed more than 312 km/h. That compared to pacesetter Valtteri Bottas, who clocked 338 km/h - a full 26 km/h faster than Button.
In the world of F1, where the smallest of gains counts for so much, it is a scary deficit. And as Button admitted, with the availability of DRS in the race, there will be times when they are simply sitting ducks on the two long straights.
So far, so bad, but it isn’t all doom and gloom for McLaren - not by a long shot. In spite of their speed shortfall, this is actually one of McLaren’s best weekends in terms of performance. Alonso, for example, wound up within a second of the outright pace in FP2, and was eighth after the first runs in Q1. With a puncture leaving him towards the back of the grid, he has a potential pace advantage over those in front. As the speed trap suggests, however, making use of it could prove problematic...
Grosjean poised for one final fling with Lotus
When the chequered flag falls at Yas Marina on Sunday evening, it will bring an end to one of the most enduring relationships in F1 racing - that of Romain Grosjean and Lotus.
All 82 of the Frenchman’s world championship starts (and all 10 of his podium finishes) have come with the Enstone team, with whom he made his debut in 2009 when they were still in their Renault guise, so it seems somehow fitting that he’ll leave for the new Haas squad with Lotus seemingly on the verge of reverting to Renault ownership.
Given his history and affection for the team, Grosjean is determined to leave on a high, and to add to the 49 points he’s contributed to their tally so far this season. A gearbox problem in qualifying did him no favours, but even from 15th on the grid the perma-smiling former GP2 champion will fancy his chances. As he says: “I’ll be doing everything I can tomorrow; I’ve asked the engine guys to turn it up to 11 so let’s see what we can do!”
And what better leaving present could there be than helping to seal sixth in the constructors’ standings?