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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

Recapping the proper Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel rivalry (VIDEO)

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Lewis Hamilton and Sebastien Vettel are the two most decorated drivers currently on the Formula 1 grid, with seven World Championships between them (four for Vettel, and three for Hamilton).

However, their paths have rarely crossed on the track, and only in 2010 did both drivers battle each for a World Championship in the same year. They also battled Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber that year, with Vettel emerging on top to claim his first World Championship.

However, the 2017 season sees Hamilton and Vettel in the two best cars on the grid, and they have gone head-to-head multiple times already this year, with each claiming two victories through the first five races. Currently, Vettel leads Hamilton 104-98 in the world championship, and the two men are developing a strong on-track rivalry.

Monaco Grand Prix coverage continues with FP3 and qualifying on Saturday. Full times are linked here.

 

Take a look behind the scenes of Fernando Alonso’s Indy 500 qualifying runs (VIDEO)

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In Friday’s NASCAR AMERICA Motorsports Special on NBCSN, we take you behind the scenes during F1 superstar Fernando Alonso’s qualifying runs for the Indy 500, including when he was on the pole for a brief period. He’ll eventually start fifth. 

Simulator ride tells what Fernando Alonso can expect in Indianapolis 500 (VIDEO)

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On Friday’s NASCAR AMERICA Motorsports Special on NBCSN, Parker Kligerman and his backseat driver, Kyle Petty, took to the iRacing simulator to make a mock run around Indianapolis Motor Speedway in preparation for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

They look at the challenges of IMS, as well as the challenges two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso will face in the first oval track race in his illustrious career. Alonso is among the favorites in the race and will take the green flag from the middle of Row 2 (fifth position).

Check out the above video.  

Legendary announcer Ken Squier gets you ready for Sunday’s big day of racing (VIDEO)

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Sunday is the biggest day of the year in motorsports, starting in the morning with Formula 1’s legendary Monaco Grand Prix.

Then, at Noon ET, it’s the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The final part of the tripleheader of racing is NASCAR’s longest race of the season, the 400-lap, 600-mile Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Newly-named NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2018 inductee Ken Squier gives you a great primer for what promises to be a memorable day around the world (see video above).