All eyes will be on Yas Marina Circuit this weekend as the fierce Formula One battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen reaches its climax with the closing Grand Prix of the season. Here are six storylines to to look out for.
1. Drivers hope for clean race as both championships come down to the wire
With the top two drivers arriving to Abu Dhabi equal on points in the standings, and their teams, Mercedes and Red Bull, also battling to the end for the constructors’ title, everything is on the line in the UAE capital.
Given how intense the rivalry between Hamilton and Verstappen has grown these past few months, many expect the championship to be decided by a collision rather than an incident-free race on Sunday, but the title contenders played down such thoughts.
“Just going into the weekend, I don’t put any energy towards that sort of thing,” Hamilton said on Thursday. “At the end of the day I do believe that everyone here racing comes to win; I’d like to believe everyone wants to do it the right way, so I don’t even let that creep into my mind.”
Verstappen, winner of nine races so far this season, believes he has been unfairly treated by the stewards during recent events and said it is clear that “for me there are different rules, compared to some other drivers out there.”
He added: “We’re both here to win. I will do, of course, everything to win and win the championship ultimately, whatever is necessary in terms of points.
“I think we’ve raced really well together already the whole year and I think we put on a great show for everyone at the end of the day, so hopefully we can do that again here.”
The duo have indeed injected a great deal of excitement into Formula One this year and even their fellow drivers are intrigued by what might unfold in Abu Dhabi.
AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly said that when he returned his hotel after the race in Jeddah last Sunday he immediately watched the highlights.
“I was like, woah, that was a great race to watch in terms of the battles they give us and how close it gets between the two and how far they’re pushing the limits between each other,” said the Frenchman.
“It’s just an amazing time for the entire F1 community, and our sport in general, and mostly I’m really excited to see what’s going to happen this weekend.
“I think Max will have the edge in the end. I’m not sure they’re going to finish the race but I think Red Bull and Max will get it.”
Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso also tipped Verstappen for the title, saying the Dutchman has had the better year overall.
“Max is driving, in my opinion, one step ahead of all of us,” he said. “We saw the lap in Jeddah: until he touched the wall in the last corner, that lap was coming from Max, not from the Red Bull.
“In a way, but that’s my opinion, Mercedes deserve the constructors’ championship because the car is superior and Max, maybe overall in the year, was driving one step ahead of everyone.”
Former world champion Kimi Raikkonen said if he had to pick a winner, it would be “the Red Bull to win it, just something different, you know.” Williams driver George Russell, meanwhile, said he backs fellow Brit Hamilton.
“I’d love to see Lewis win,” said Russell. “What he’s achieved, especially recently, has been pretty exceptional, and to even be in the fight (at all) when Red Bull had such a far superior car at the start of the year... when you look back at the start, Max won three of the first four races when Red Bull were clearly the quickest package out there.
“Max has done an exceptional job — you can argue that they both deserve to win for different reasons but hopefully it’s a clean and fair race and the best man wins.”
2. History on the line
Should Hamilton win this weekend, the 36-year-old will become the first driver to claim eight F1 World Championship titles, breaking the record he currently shares with Michael Schumacher.
The Mercedes driver, who has won six of the last seven championships, has surpassed several of Schumacher’s records, including the German’s mark for most pole positions and most grand prix victories, and now has another within his reach.
“At the moment it just feels like another championship for me, I don’t look at it as a multiple,” Hamilton said on Thursday.
“I always look at every season and every year as you start from ground zero, and you’re the hunter and you’re fighting from the moment you start training, the moment you get into the new year and you’re training and focused on winning.
“I don’t turn up with No.1 in my car, I turn up with No.44 and I don’t consider myself the champion that year, I consider myself the one that’s fighting for the championship.”
3. Kimi’s swansong
Alfa Romeo’s Raikkonen will bid farewell to F1 for a second time after his 349th and final race this weekend in Abu Dhabi.
A man of few words, the “Iceman” gave one of his famous one-liners during his drive to victory at Yas Marina Circuit in 2012.
“Just leave me alone, I know what to do,” he said over the team radio after receiving instructions during the race. Clearly, he sis indeed know what he was doing.
The 2007 world champion, who quit F1 for two years before returning in 2012, said he doubts he will feel emotional on Sunday, “but you never know.” He added that he expects his wife, Minttu, will feel it for the both of them.
4. Last race for Bottas in a Mercedes, Russell bids farewell to Williams
Another Finn getting ready to say goodbye this weekend, not to F1 but to his team of five years, is Valtteri Bottas, who will race for Mercedes for the last time on Sunday before jumping ship to Alfa Romeo next season.
The 32-year-old, who secured the 67th podium of his career on the final corner of the last lap in Jeddah, said he has “mixed feelings” about his time with the Silver Arrows, with whom he claimed 10 race victories but was unable to fulfill his dream of clinching the World Championship.
Having already bagged third place in the 2021 championship, Bottas said he is willing to do what is necessary to help Hamilton and Mercedes walk away from Abu Dhabi with two titles.
“Of course I’ll try to qualify in pole position, that’s my goal for Saturday, and then I will try to win the race,” he said. “It will depend on the situation because Lewis doesn’t actually need to win the race, he needs to finish ahead of Max, so let’s see how it goes.
“But I’m definitely willing to play it as a team because I’ve secured my third place. As long as we can get the constructors’ (title), hopefully, I’d rather have my teammate win than opposition, so it will depend on the situation but he’s got my support.”
Meanwhile, Russell, who will take the seat vacated by Bottas at Mercedes next year, had some warm words for Williams, the team for which he has driven in F1 since 2019.
“They gave me my first opportunity in Formula One, which I’ll forever be grateful for,” said the 23-year-old.
“They helped mold me into a better all-round driver, helped me learn the technical side of this sport much more and to develop my skills. Above all, you build these bonds and friendships with people, especially through good times, and even the tough times; you grow closer together with so many of your core group of people and that will last forever.
5. Close battle for fifth place
Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz take their three-way battle for fifth place in the drivers’ championship into the final race weekend.
Ferrari’s Leclerc leads McLaren’s Norris by a mere four points in the standings, while Sainz, driving the other Ferrari, is 4.5 points further back.
Norris’ last two appearances at Yas Marina Circuit ended with fifth place in 2020 and eighth in 2019. Leclerc’s best finish in the UAE was two years ago when he finished third.
Norris believes the fight with Ferrari will greatly help him and his McLaren team next season when they’re in a position to battle with cars further up the grid.
“Just being with that mentality of them keeping us on our toes, them keeping us pushing, trying to find the smallest bits of lap time,” he said.
“I think it’s easy at times to get complacent and start to take your mind off this, especially if you’re on your own. If there’s no one ahead of you and no one behind you, there’s definitely ways to fall into that trap.
“So I think it’s been good for us, probably the same for them, that it’s not been an easy year for them, so I think it’s definitely benefited both of us.”
Sainz has finished sixth twice in Abu Dhabi and will be looking to beat his teammate this weekend after being passed by Leclerc on the final corner in Jeddah.
6. New layout could make for ‘fun’ race
After stops at new tracks in Doha and Jeddah, for the season finale the drivers return to Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit, which made its F1 debut in 2009 and will remain on the calendar for at least another 10 years.
It might be a place they are familiar with but some key changes have been made to the circuit layout this year, in an effort to improve the race experience.
Historically, it has been difficult for drivers to overtake at Yas Marina but the renovations, including shortening the length of the circuit to make for shorter and faster laps, could result in a more exciting race on Sunday.
“From what I’ve seen in the simulator, it’s fun,” said Leclerc. “It’s obviously quite different, especially turn 5 and turn 10, and the last sector also is quite a bit quicker, with different types of corners, which I think will be easier to follow.
“Whether that will make us a bit more competitive or not, I have no idea.”
Alonso said he is curious to see how the changes will affect the racing and hopes the title will be decided on a circuit that provides ample overtaking opportunities.