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What to watch for: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET)

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Championship showdowns are something to be savored in sport.

After a season-long, wheel-to-wheel fight, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton will duke it out for the final time in 2016 today.

One of the two Mercedes drivers will be crowned Formula 1 world champion under the lights in Abu Dhabi.

However, there are many more stories running through the grid today as the 2016 season comes to a close.

An era of F1 will come to an end today with the departures of Felipe Massa and Jenson Button, two veterans of grand prix racing, while we also bid farewell to the current technical rules before their overhaul for 2017.

You can watch the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

For the final time in 2016, here is what to watch for in today’s race.

2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – What to watch for

Rosberg on the brink of history, but can he hold his nerve?

Nico Rosberg stands on the brink of history. 34 years after his father, Keke, won the F1 world championship, Nico can now emulate his father with a podium finish. His lead of 12 points may have been eroded over the past three races, but the German has done all he has needed to do. Today is about finishing the job.

Rosberg has lacked the edge of Hamilton throughout the weekend, lagging three-tenths of a second behind in qualifying, but he will nevertheless be gunning for victory. Being crowned champion with a race win is the sweetest feeling for racing drivers.

The biggest concerns for Rosberg will be a) reliability – he’s been relatively unaffected by technical issues this year; it’s worth noting his engine has more mileage than Hamilton’s – and b) the Red Bull drivers. Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen could threaten to rain on his parade with an alternate strategy. If they split Rosberg and Hamilton, the Briton will celebrate a fourth crown.

Rosberg has held his nerve for the most part in 2016, shaking off the demons of his title losses the previous two years. Today is the biggest day of his career so far.

Hamilton in unchartered territory as the underdog

Lewis Hamilton has never arrived at a title finale while still bearing a realistic chance of winning the title as the underdog. He mathematically could win it in 2010, but required three other drivers to retire. His loss in 2007 and wins in 2008 and 2014 were from in front, though – to be chasing is a new feeling for him.

Hamilton has been in a fine vein of form recently. Four straight poles and three wins on the bounce put him in good shape ahead of the title decider. A 10th win of the year may not be enough to secure him the championship, but it would unquestionably fuel debates about whether he was more deserving of the title.

Should Rosberg struggle or hit trouble, and Hamilton be in a position to pounce, this would surely be his sweetest title success. For all of the setbacks and issues he’s faced through 2016, Hamilton has remained resilient, fighting at the front. Against the odds, can he match Alain Prost’s tally of four titles on Sunday?

Will Red Bull have a say in deciding the title?

F1 title deciders are rarely settled between the two drivers in the mix on-track. Instead, it is the role of an outsider to the fight to make a brief yet all-important cameo. Think Timo Glock in 2008. Think Vitaly Petrov in 2010. Neither had any real business being in the fight, yet both will be remembered in F1 history for their roles.

Red Bull has the ability to play that part in Abu Dhabi today. Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo have been two of the most impressive drivers throughout 2016, and although victory may be out of reach today on raw pace, the podium certainly is not.

Both drivers will start the race on the super-soft tire, giving them the chance to go longer through the first stint and open up more strategy options in the process. If Ricciardo and Verstappen can pile the pressure on Rosberg, and leave the German in need of a pass to win the title, they could very easily play title spoilers.

Farewell and thank you, JB and Felipe

With a combined tally of over 550 race starts, today marks the final scheduled time we will see either Jenson Button or Felipe Massa lining up on the F1 grid. While neither has enjoyed the kind of success tasted by this millennium’s most notable drivers, such as Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel or Lewis Hamilton, both will be remembered fondly for decades to come.

Neither driver has done things the easy way. Massa got his break with Ferrari in 2006 before coming within 20 seconds of the world title two years later, only to lose out in the most agonizing of circumstances to Lewis Hamilton. A severe injury in 2009 nearly ended Massa’s career, but the Brazilian fought back to race fitness in 2010 and has remained a fond figure throughout the paddock ever since.

For Button, his world title was won in one of F1’s greatest stories. From being mired at the back of the grid in 2008 to dominating the sport in the early part of 2009 with Brawn GP, Button turned his career around and then carried his form through to his move to McLaren for 2010. The Briton wasn’t a one-hit-wonder.

For one last time today, Button and Massa will fight it out on-track. Let’s hope they can get a fitting send off under the lights in Abu Dhabi.

School’s out for winter

The final thought for this season is that the upcoming winter period, as enraging as it may be for racing fans with a thirst for racing, is much needed. At the end of F1’s longest-ever season, coming in at 21 races and innumerable airmiles for the paddock, a brief period of respite will be needed.

2016 has been an interesting season for F1. The title fight between Hamilton and Rosberg has been fantastic, and although the threat from the chasing pack failed to mount to anything too serious, things are shaping up well for 2017.

With new drivers, new rules and a new look coming F1’s way next year, the final hurrah for 2016 is very much the end of an era. But who will be our champion?

2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
4. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
5. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
6. Max Verstappen Toro Rosso
7. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
8. Sergio Perez Force India
9. Fernando Alonso McLaren
10. Felipe Massa Williams
11. Valtteri Bottas Williams
12. Jenson Button McLaren
13. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
14. Romain Grosjean Haas
15. Jolyon Palmer Renault
16. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
17. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
18. Kevin Magnussen Renault
19. Felipe Nasr Sauber
20. Esteban Ocon Manor
21. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
22. Marcus Ericsson Sauber

MRTI: Chris Griffis Test Sunday times and notebook

Thompson (90, Exclusive) and Hoogenboom (78, BN) in Pro Mazda. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The two-day Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test concluded on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

Combined times after the two days of running are below, with Nico Jamin (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires) and Oliver Askew (Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires) remaining on top from Saturday to Sunday, and Darren Keane (Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda) supplanting Andres Gutierrez at the head of that field.

Previous notebooks are linked here (Friday, Saturday), with additional Sunday notes to follow.

COMBINED TIMES

INDY LIGHTS (Best Session)Full Results

Jamin. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 5-Nico Jamin, Belardi Auto Racing, 1:15.7173 (Session 2)
2. 98-Colton Herta, Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, 1:15.7808 (Session 8)
3. 23-Victor Franzoni, Juncos Racing, 1:15.7953 (Session 8)
4. 3-Pato O’Ward, Team Pelfrey, 1:16.0900 (Session 5)
5. 4-Rinus Veekay, Belardi Auto Racing, 1:16.1419 (Session 5)
6. 31-Carlos Cunha, Juncos Racing, 1:16.1585 (Session 8)
7. 31-Nicolas Dapero, Juncos Racing, 1:16.2491 (Session 4)
8. 48-Ryan Norman, Andretti Autosport, 1:16.3285 (Session 4)
9. 27-Anthony Martin, Andretti Autosport, 1:16.5185 (Session 4)
10. 2-TJ Fischer, Team Pelfrey, 1:16.8124 (Session 5)
11. 21-Heamin Choi, Juncos Racing, 1:18.1931 (Session 5)

PRO MAZDA (Best Session); Full Results 

Askew. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 8-Oliver Askew, Cape Motorsports, 1:19.8142 (Session 5)
2. 79-David Malukas, BN Racing, 1:19.9394 (Session 5)
3. 90-Parker Thompson, Exclusive Autosport, 1:19.9815 (Session 5)
4. 1-Carlos Cunha, Juncos Racing, 1:20.0236 (Session 2)
5. 3-Robert Megennis, Juncos Racing, 1:20.1268 (Session 4)
6. 81-Kaylen Frederick, Team Pelfrey, 1:20.1928 (Session 5)
7. 18-Calvin Ming, Pabst Racing, 1:20.2141 (Session 5)
8. 2-Sting Ray Robb, Juncos Racing, 1:20.6289 (Session 5)
9. 91-Nikita Lastochkin, Exclusive Autosport, 1:20.7001 (Session 2)
10. 80-Kris Wright, Team Pelfrey, 1:20.9930 (Session 4)
11. 82-Aaron Telitz, Team Pelfrey, 1:21.2144 (Session 8)
12. 78-Leonard Hoogenboom, BN Racing, 1:21.3713 (Session 8)

USF2000 (Best Session); Full Results

Keane ended head of queue in USF2000. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 36-Darren Keane, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:25.1424 (Session 5)
2. 22-Andres Gutierrez, Pabst Racing, 1:25.5618 (Session 3)
3. 27-Callan O’Keefe, BN Racing, 1:25.6295 (Session 2)
4. 21-Hunter McElrea, Pabst Racing, 1:25.7021 (Session 5)
5. 31-Rasmus Lindh, Team BENIK, 1:25.7791 (Session 5)
6. 81-Jacob Loomis, Team Pelfrey, 1:25.8514 (Session 5)
7. 90-Parker Thompson, Exclusive Autosport, 1:25.8743 (Session 2)
8. 23-Lucas Kohl, Pabst Racing, 1:25.9792 (Session 6)
9. 37-David Osborne, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:25.9996 (Session 8)
10. 20-Aaron Telitz, RJB Motorsports, 1:26.0042 (Session 6)
11. 80-Michael D’Orlando, Team Pelfrey, 1:26.2295 (Session 8)
12. 37-Jake Craig, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:26.2452 (Session 4)
13. 25-Elliott Finlayson, BN Racing, 1:26.3668 (Session 8)
14. 32-Jaden Conwright, Team BENIK, 1:26.4557 (Session 2)
15. 38-Max Peichel, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:26.5058 (Session 2)
16. 33-Myles Rowe, John Cummiskey Racing, 1:26.6004 (Session 8)
17. 90-Justin Gordon, Exclusive Autosport, 1:26.6460 (Session 5)
18. 82-David Osborne, Team Pelfrey, 1:26.6824 (Session 2)
19. 34-Sabre Cook, John Cummiskey Racing, 1:26.9362 (Session 6)
20. 38-Oscar DeLuzuriaga, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:27.7455 (Session 8)
21. 92-Justin Gordon, Exclusive Autosport, 1:27.7750 (Session 3)
22. 24-Zoey Edenholm, BN Racing, 1:28.5449 (Session 8)
23. 93-Jayson Clunie, Exclusive Autosport, No Time

NOTES

Old USF2000 teammates Jamin and Telitz share a high-five. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Several drivers pulled double duty between series, namely Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport in Pro Mazda and USF2000), Carlos Cunha (Juncos Racing in Indy Lights and Pro Mazda) and Aaron Telitz (Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda, RJB Motorsports in USF2000). Telitz (above) added a run in Pro Mazda in Team Pelfrey’s No. 82 car; the Wisconsinite has done a lot of the series’ testing for the new Pro Mazda Tatuus PM-18, and had hoped to run all three series. We’ll have more meanwhile on Thompson and Exclusive’s double in the days to come; the Michael Duncalfe-led team out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was one of three new Pro Mazda teams adding those cars to USF2000 efforts (Pabst Racing, BN Racing) this week.
  • There were a handful of drivers that changed cars or teams for Sunday’s second day of the test, primarily in USF2000. While Keane ran both days at Newman Wachs, the Brian Halahan-managed team ran David Osborne and Oscar DeLuzuriaga in the Nos. 37 and 38 cars, taking over from Jake Craig and Max Peichel. Osborne switched from Team Pelfrey, where he ran Saturday, and where Jacob Loomis ran Sunday. Justin Gordon ran a second Exclusive Autosport chassis, switching to the No. 90 on Sunday after running the No. 92 Saturday.
  • The PM-18 best lap set by Askew is more than three seconds faster than the series’ official track record (Pato O’Ward in 2016, at 1:22.8800, 105.941 mph). Askew’s best time of 1:19.8142 averages 110.010 mph around the 2.439-mile circuit. Neither the Indy Lights nor USF2000 cars eclipsed the existing lap records in those categories.
  • Drivers largely extolled the PM-18’s outright pace and potential with the horsepower upgrade, in what is a significant step forward for the series. “Following prototype testing of the new PM-18, I believed that we had a special race car and this weekend’s testing confirms that,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “Based on team and driver comments, this is a fantastic race car and I am very pleased with what Tatuus, Elite Engines and my team have assembled. It fits perfectly in between the USF-17 and the IL-15 in terms of lap times and, more importantly, it takes what a driver learns in the first step and introduces higher HP, higher grip and higher aero. This will be a great training car for years to come, and seeing our program now with three excellent and well-designed cars is very satisfying to me.”
  • Keane, one of the few veterans (relatively speaking) within USF2000 was plugged in this weekend as the only driver outside Pabst Racing to threaten the top of the timesheets. “It’s a good boost in confidence for me heading into next year. I am really happy with how everything is going with the team. They are a great group of guys and it’s just really good to see us improving and being where we want to be,” he said.
  • Rinus Veekay hailed the Indy Lights Dallara IL-15 Mazda this weekend in his first test there, although the talented Dutch teenager may well focus on Pro Mazda next season and shoot to win that championship, and continue his battle with Askew established in USF2000. “The car is very nice, quick,” noted VeeKay. “You can really feel the downforce and it was a pleasure to drive.”
Veekay. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The MRTI is done with official running for the year, but the $200,000 MRTI Scholarship Shootout remains in December at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, the former Firebird Raceway, outside Phoenix. The winner of that will get a ticket into USF2000 for the 2018 season.

Full MRTI spring training will take place at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February 2018, with undoubtedly a bevy of driver and team announcements to come over the following months.