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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

Vettel in no rush to sign new Ferrari F1 contract

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Sebastian Vettel is in no rush to sign a new Formula 1 contract with Ferrari despite his current deal expiring at the end of the season.

Vettel joined Ferrari in 2015 on a three-year deal, and currently leads the F1 drivers’ championship for the Italian marque ahead of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton.

Vettel’s future has been subject to much speculation as part of the annual ‘silly season’ driver rumor mill, but the four-time world champion has shown few signs of wanting to leave Ferrari.

In order to focus on his bid for a fifth title, Vettel is not looking to sign a new contract with Ferrari any time soon, believing there to be no need for an immediate decision.

“We have other things to do. In the summer there’s a bit more time, there’s a couple of weeks rest where there’s no race,” Vettel said in Thursday’s FIA press conference ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix.

“But for now, focus is extremely high on working on the car. A piece of paper can be signed fairly quickly, so that’s not a problem.

“I’m not in a rush, I don’t think the team is in a rush as far as I understand. I think they would tell me otherwise.

“There’s no problem. Nothing’s wrong.”

Vettel is currently paired at Ferrari with Kimi Raikkonen, whose contract is also up at the end of the year.

‘Dinner with Racers’ rides again for third season

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Spencer Pumpelly killing a guy… allegedly. Johnny O’Connell attempting to run over Dario Franchitti… again, allegedly. Copious mentions of Bill Riley. Chicken sandwiches.

All these inside jokes, along with awesome stories and food selections, are staples of the “Dinner with Racers” podcast series, which is presented by Continental Tire, and will roll on once again this fall for a third season.

The key addition to this year from co-creators Sean Heckman, PR veteran and partner in TMB Creative, Inc. (The Media Barons) and Ryan Eversley, Acura factory driver for RealTime Racing in the Pirelli World Challenge, is the launch of an official guest submission contest (fans can submit their guest recommendations here), as well as other fan contests to be revealed as they get closer to hitting the road.

Quotes from both Eversley and Heckman in the official release go true to form if you know both individuals, their styles and sense of humor, and if you’ve listened to any of the podcasts from seasons one and two.

“I can’t believe we’re doing this again,” stated co-host Eversley. “It’s honestly a lot of fun to do this, and in many ways very refreshing. The enthusiasm we find in every guest we meet, no matter how accomplished, is incredible, and something that reminds us both how great it is to work in this sport. The only thing more satisfying is the tremendous fan response we’ve had over the years. We honestly had no clue how many people would not only listen, but respond so positively, and for that we couldn’t be more grateful. This year we’re trying to do a little more to include our fan-base, we hope they enjoy it.”

“I agree, it’s a lot of fun,” continued Heckman. “For the first week.”

The cross-country trip will occur this fall and episodes are generally released around the holidays, either on the front side or back side of Thanksgiving but before Christmas.

Ferrucci steps up to Formula 2 with Trident for rest of season

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American racer Santino Ferrucci will make the step up to FIA Formula 2 for the remainder of the 2017 season, linking up with Trident.

Ferrucci, 19, made his GP3 debut in 2016 and has raced in the series ever since, balancing development duties with the Haas Formula 1 team.

The native of Woodbury, Connecticut will make his F2 debut this weekend in Hungary, securing a seat with Trident for the rest of the season.

“We are really proud to announce the agreement reached between Team Trident and the American racer Santino Ferrucci for the final five rounds of the FIA Formula 2 season,” Trident team manager Giacomo Ricci.

“The 19-year-old already had the chance to test one of our GP3 Series cars in last November’s collective postseason test at Abu Dhabi.

“Back then, he impressed the team’s staff, bringing home great results and keeping his name among the top-5 at all times.

“He is now set to make his Formula 2 debut at Budapest, on the same track where he led the way in GP3 Series testing.

“I am sure that Santino has all the skills needed to adapt to a Formula 2 car very quickly. Also, thanks to his Formula 1 experience, he will not have problems in managing more power and carbon fiber brakes.”

Pirelli confirms Brazil, Abu Dhabi tire selections to finish 2017

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Pirelli has confirmed the Brazilian and Abu Dhabi Grands Prix tire selections for the final two races of the season, which brings to a conclusion all the selected sets for the rest of the way.

Pirelli will have the supersoft, soft and medium compounds on offer at Sao Paulo in Brazil with the ultrasoft back for Abu Dhabi with the supersoft and soft compounds.

The Abu Dhabi selections will match those at Austin and Mexico City for that back-to-back in October.

Here are the remaining tire selections for after the summer break. At Hungary this weekend, teams can run the supersoft, soft and medium.

  • August 27: Belgium, Ultrasoft, Supersoft, Soft
  • Sept. 3: Italy, Supersoft, Soft, Medium
  • Sept. 17: Singapore, Ultrasoft, Supersoft, Soft 
  • Oct. 1: Malaysia, Supersoft, Soft, Medium
  • Oct. 8: Japan, Supersoft, Soft, Medium
  • Oct. 22: USA, Ultrasoft, Supersoft, Soft 
  • Oct. 29: Mexico, Ultrasoft, Supersoft, Soft
  • Nov. 12: Brazil, Supersoft, Soft, Medium
  • Nov. 26: Abu Dhabi, Ultrasoft, Supersoft, Soft