Daniel Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso

After Spa’s missed opportunity, Williams must hit back at Monza

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With just seven races to go, the end of the 2014 Formula 1 season is closer than you might think. It has been a sensational year so far, and with Lewis and Nico set to go toe-to-toe until the very last round in Abu Dhabi, the title race could be one of the closest we have ever seen.

Just behind the duelling Mercedes drivers, though, a number of interesting subplots are developing. Red Bull’s rise from off-season no-hopers to three-time race winners has been very impressive, made even more so by the fact that Daniel Ricciardo has been the man to lead the team’s charge – not Sebastian Vettel. The defending world champions look set to finish second in the constructors’.

For Ferrari and Williams though, things aren’t so certain. Both teams are pushing to finish the season in third place, and must balance this bid with the diversion of resources to next year’s campaign. It’s a common trade-off in F1: do you finish the season strongly or stand a better chance of winning next year?

As things stand, Ferrari leads Williams by ten points (160 plays 150) for P3, but you would be forgiven for expecting a reverse result following the Belgian Grand Prix. In fact, I even contemplated the idea of Williams finishing ahead of Red Bull over the summer break. However, the team missed a big opportunity at Spa which, coupled with Daniel Ricciardo’s superb win, appears to leave that thesis dead in the water.

Williams’ big strength comes on the straights thanks to the grunt of the Mercedes engine and the design of the FW36 car. Valtteri Bottas passed Nico Rosberg twice at Spa because of this (although he did trail the championship leader home at the flag). The track also played against Ferrari, and when Fernando Alonso began to drop back through the field, the team looked resigned to lose position in the constructors’ championship once again.

In the end, it was Kimi Raikkonen – a man many thought had given up – who came to the rescue, finishing fourth to minimize the damage of Bottas’ podium finish. Alonso brought home a small haul of points down in seventh, while Felipe Massa’s race was ruined when debris from Lewis Hamilton’s car got caught in his Williams. He limped home in 13th place. If Lewis thinks he’s been unlucky this year, he ought to see what Felipe has been contesting with!

So Williams’ net loss at Spa was three points. Considering where the team was in 2013, it is remarkable that it even has Ferrari in sight, but this does put some extra pressure on the team for the race at Monza next weekend. The circuit is the fastest on the calendar, and should be a very happy hunting ground for those with a Mercedes engine. Bottas and Massa know that they must leave Ferrari’s home turf with third place in the constructors’ tucked under their arm.

As for Ferrari? Finishing fourth would be a great shame for the team that was expected to be Mercedes’ closest rival in 2014. However, it could have even bigger implications: rumour has it that Fernando Alonso has a get-out clause in his contract if the team finishes lower than P3 in the standings. With McLaren sniffing, Ferrari has a lot to fight for if said speculation is indeed true.

Just like the fight for the drivers’ title, you can expect this battle to run until the end of the season.

Alonso cools talk of taking sabbatical from F1

xxxx during final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 28, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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Fernando Alonso has cooled speculation suggesting he could take a sabbatical from Formula 1, remaining adamant that he will be on the grid with McLaren in 2016.

Alonso rejoined McLaren for 2015 after a hostile exit from Ferrari, but has struggled to find any kind of form thanks to numerous issues with the Honda power unit used by the team.

After just two top-ten finishes and just 11 points in 2015, speculation has been rife about an early split between Alonso and McLaren as the Spaniard’s frustrations grow.

Time and time again, Alonso has insisted that he will see out his three-year deal with McLaren, but team CEO Ron Dennis hinted on Saturday that a sabbatical could be taken.

“He will definitely finish his career at McLaren,” Dennis said. “I have an open mind to anything, and some of the ideas involved those sorts of considerations: sabbaticals etc.

“When we have to take the decision, we will take it together, and at this moment of time, our drivers for next season are Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button.”

When asked if he intended to compete in F1 next year, Alonso said: “I will, I will.”

The Spaniard went on to say that he did not feel under pressure following Dennis’ comments, and that the team boss should be instead focusing on Honda.

“If he wants to put pressure on someone, I’m sure it’s not me,” Alonso said.

“If it’s someone, it has to be on Honda so they do a good job all winter.”

Alonso’s miserable campaign continued in qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Saturday as he finished 17th thanks to a puncture in Q1.

“Our car has performed better in every session than we initially anticipated,” Alonso said. “So it was cruel luck to get a puncture at possibly the most critical point of the whole weekend, the final run of Q1.

“That was unfortunate, because we’d been looking very competitive, and our car seems to be performing quite well around here.

“The race will be difficult owing to our straight-line speed deficit, but I’ll be aiming to make a good start, run a good strategy, and make up some positions. We’ll see what we can do tomorrow.”

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Perez charges to best F1 qualifying result in Abu Dhabi

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 28:  Sergio Perez of Mexico and Force India drives during final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 28, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg may have taken his sixth pole position of the year in Abu Dhabi, but it was Force India’s Sergio Perez who received most of the plaudits after recording his best Formula 1 qualifying result on Saturday.

Perez displayed a good pace throughout the first two stages of qualifying, finishing third behind the two Mercedes drivers in both Q1 and Q2.

At one point in Q3, the Mexican even briefly threatened to challenge the Silver Arrows for a place on the front row after lapping within one-tenth of a second of Lewis Hamilton on his first run.

Perez could not match their pace on the final laps in Q3, while Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was also able to edge him out by 0.133 seconds to leave the Force India driver fourth.

The result still marks Perez’s best-ever qualifying result, having previously only finished as high as fifth on a Saturday.

Although the Mexican started from P4 in Belgium 2012, Bahrain 2014 and Belgium 2015, he had qualified fifth for all three sessions before gaining a position by virtue of other drivers receiving penalties.

“Fourth place on the grid is a great result for us and I’m very pleased with our strong performance all the way through qualifying,” Perez said.

“We’ve made some good decisions this weekend with the changes we have made to the car and it’s taken us in a very positive direction. I think the analysis we carried out after the weekend in Sao Paulo has really paid off and we’ve learned a huge amount.

“All of my laps this evening were very clean and tidy, and we managed to get the maximum from the car. The challenge tomorrow will be keeping some very quick cars behind me, but I also think we have a good chance to make up some positions at the start.

“I have the confidence in the car to really push and there is definitely the potential to come away with a great result this weekend.

“In many ways it’s a shame that tomorrow is the final race of the season because the car is working very well at the moment and I’m enjoying the racing so much.”

Underpinning Perez’s good pace was teammate Nico Hulkenberg, who qualified seventh in the sister Force India car.

“It was a good qualifying session for the team, although I feel I could have been higher up the grid,” Hulkenberg admitted. “I was pretty happy with my laps, especially the one in Q3, so to find myself in seventh actually feels a little bit disappointing.

“We need to look at the data and figure out where we lost time and what we can do to recover it. Looking ahead to the race, we’ve been working hard to improve our race pace and hopefully the changes we have made will pay off tomorrow.

“The car is quick on the straights and the balance has felt good from the start of the weekend. Starting from the fourth row, we have every opportunity to score a good result tomorrow.”

Force India secured fifth place in the constructors’ championship last time out in Brazil, but will still be gunning to end the year on a high with a strong performance on Sunday in Abu Dhabi.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Hamilton regrets setup changes after qualifying second in Abu Dhabi

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain steers his car during qualifying at the Yas Marina racetrack in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. The Emirates Formula One Grand Prix will take place on Sunday.  (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
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Lewis Hamilton was left ruing changes to his setup ahead of qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after missing out on pole by three-tenths of a second.

For the sixth race in a row, Hamilton will start from P2 on the grid at the Yas Marina Circuit after losing out to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the final stage of qualifying.

Hamilton set the pace in both Q1 and Q2, but was unable to match Rosberg’s time in the final shoot-out for pole, leaving him to settle for second place once again.

“I’ve generally been struggling with the car a little bit all weekend,” Hamilton said after qualifying.

“We’ve been working really hard to make some changes and we had to take something off the car, but Nico was just really quick today and he did a really great job in Q3.”

“It generally gets a little bit better in the race. But it’s been for a while now, just struggling on the edge of the car.

“It was a lot more comfortable at the beginning of the year for me and coming into this weekend, I tried to make some changes.

“I disadvantaged myself with one of the things that I took off the car because it looked better. I tried to get around it but at the end of the day it wasn’t good enough.”

Hamilton may have clinched his third Formula 1 title over a month ago in Austin, but the Briton knows that victory in Abu Dhabi is key if he is to end Rosberg’s hot streak and cut some of the German’s momentum ahead of the 2016 season.

Rosberg: No revival, I’m just quicker than Hamilton right now

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Nico Rosberg’s impressive qualifying form continued on Saturday in Abu Dhabi as he secured his sixth consecutive pole position by edging out Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton at the end of Q3.

Rosberg produced a stunning final lap in qualifying to take pole by three-tenths of a second to extend his hot streak and leave Hamilton to settle for P2 once again.

Despite losing the championship over a month ago, Rosberg has been the man to beat in recent weeks, prompting many to tip him for a renewed fight for the Formula 1 drivers’ title in 2016.

Speaking after qualifying at the Yas Marina Circuit on Saturday, Rosberg said that he is simply quicker than Hamilton at the moment and that his recent form is not a revival.

“Before it was close in the other direction and now it is close in this direction,” Rosberg said.

“I am quicker at the moment and I am very pleased about that. I am enjoying the moment and happy to be on pole again. There is no revival and I haven’t invented anything. It is just progress and that is it.

“Before it was always very, very close and Lewis had that one tenth edge. at the moment it is me that has the one tenth edge, today a bit more, but it was very close lately in the last two races.”

Rosberg’s sixth consecutive pole position means that he will start 2016 just two shy of the Ayrton Senna’s record streak set across the 1988 and 1989 seasons with McLaren.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.