MotorSportsTalk’s predictions: Abu Dhabi GP

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The Formula One calendar can now boast a number of ‘glamour’ events such as Monaco and Singapore, with Abu Dhabi completing the trio of star-studded grands prix. As the only day/night race on the calendar, it is a unique event much like Singapore but with a permanent circuit based in one of the most exotic locations in the Gulf region instead of the city streets in south-east Asia. The championships may be wrapped up, but there is still plenty to play for as darkness descends on the 2013 Formula One season.

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. Chance to tie Michael Schumacher’s run of seven wins in a row in a quest for a second-half sweep is too good to pass up.

Surprising finish: Nico Hulkenberg. After late-race DNF in India, the “Hulk” resumes his punching-above-the-car’s-weight routine with a top-six in Abu Dhabi.

Most to prove: Kimi Raikkonen. This may seem an odd choice here but Kimi, who at this race last year famously quipped “he knew what he was doing,” has seemed almost disinterested in the last three races. With Romain Grosjean’s incredible run of form of late coinciding, ascending to Lotus’ favored driver as Kimi leaves at year’s end, time for the “Iceman” to deliver a performance on par with his win here last year.

Christopher Estrada (@estradawriting)

Race winner: Kimi Raikkonen. Right. Time to pick somebody different. Why not go with the defending champion of this race? He and Lotus are still part of the fight for second in both driver’s and constructor’s titles, so expect them to give it all they have in these final events of the season.

Surprising finish: Jenson Button. Teammate Sergio Perez’s fifth-place showing in India seems to show that McLaren is on the rise as 2013 comes to a conclusion. If Button can avoid problems like he had early on last weekend, he could have himself a nice result on Yas Marina.

Most to prove: Fernando Alonso. He and Ferrari are in the middle of that aforementioned battle for P2 in the constructors’ race (and Raikkonen is closing in on him for P2 on the driver’s table as well). The team has not had a great pace in qualifying, and with Abu Dhabi not being the best place for overtaking, this weekend could be a challenge.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race winner: Nico Rosberg. Seb has to retire at some point, surely? Rosberg proved himself to be best of the rest in India, so he could carry that form over to Abu Dhabi this weekend.

Surprising finish: Nico Hulkenberg. I’m going to be brave and back the Hulk for a top five finish. The Sauber’s traction off slow corners and straight line speed could make him a force to be reckoned with in Abu Dhabi.

Most to prove: Pastor Maldonado. His millions may be his main selling point as he bids for a seat at Lotus in 2014, but he also needs to prove that he can deliver on track to avoid an embarrassment.

Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. Red Bull’s domination looks impregnable at the moment, and in his last two visits to Abu Dhabi he’s surely used up all the bad luck he’s owed at the track. This could be his seventh win in a row: we’re watching history being made.

Surprising finish: Lewis Hamilton. He’s had a quiet few races and was shaded by Nico Rosberg in India. But Yas Marina is his kind of track – he’s often electrifying through the last sector. If anyone’s going to keep Vettel from pole, it has to be Hamilton.

Most to prove: Giedo van der Garde. Reaching lap two with his car intact would be a marked improvement from his previous two outings.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

Follow @KyleMLavigne