Will the weight of expectation prove to be too great for Lewis Hamilton in Abu Dhabi?

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ABU DHABI – Cool, calm and collected, the two drivers in the running for the 2014 Formula 1 drivers’ championship walk into the press conference room at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.

In front of a tight scrum of journalists and photographers, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg shake hands and pose for pictures, nodding and smiling as the cameras snap away.

Once the traditional championship decider picture is finished, Hamilton gives a thumbs up to everyone before taking his seat on the back row for the FIA press conference. All is good for the Briton.

It is a press meeting that has been overshadowed by two major announcements in the hour preceding it: Sebastian Vettel’s move to Ferrari, and Fernando Alonso’s subsequent departure. They are sat on the front row alongside Jenson Button, another enigma in the driver market for 2015, and share jokes throughout the press conference. Hamilton and Rosberg are split on the top row by Nico Hulkenberg.

As the TV camera flicks on and the press conference begins, the obvious questions are asked to Alonso and Vettel about their decisions and the reasons behind them. However, attention soon turns to Lewis and Nico, with the Briton – the big favorite for the title – being asked if he has made any special preparations to deal with the pressure of the final race.

“Everybody expects you will win the title,” a journalist asks. “You’re the guy who has anything to lose.”

And it’s true. Just as we saw with his title tilts in 2007 and 2008, the pressure is well and truly on Lewis Hamilton. With a 17-point lead, he has a lot to lose in Abu Dhabi. Double points have given Nico Rosberg a greater number of outs, and he will be gunning to make them count and claim a maiden world title under the lights of Yas Marina.

So will the weight of expectation prove to be too much for Lewis Hamilton in Abu Dhabi?

It certainly did in 2007, Hamilton’s rookie year, when two big mistakes ended up costing him the championship. They weren’t Hamilton’s doing, with a dud strategy in China and then a technical issue in Brazil leaving him ailing, but he still lost out in the final title race to Kimi Raikkonen. Having led the Finn by 17 points with two races and 20 points on offer, he shouldn’t have lost the title that year – yet he could score just two points from the final two races. It was a crushing defeat at the end of an unbelievable debut season.

2008 was much the same, though. In his second season in F1, the Briton found himself embroiled in another title battle, this time with Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. Heading into the final race of the year, he held a seven point lead over Massa, knowing that fifth place and four points would be enough to guarantee the championship in Brazil. It appeared to be a formality.

But again in Brazil, things started to go awry. Massa dominated his home grand prix, taking a sensational win in the rain to the delight of the fans that thought he had been crowned world champion. Hamilton, having sat in the fifth place he needed for much of the race, slipped behind 20-year-old Sebastian Vettel in the final round of pit stops for wet tires when a heavy rain shower broke over Interlagos.

Opting to roll the dice, Timo Glock of Toyota had stayed out on dry tires, relegating Hamilton out of a championship-winning position. He was sixth heading into the last lap of the season.

Yet as he emerged through the spray to cross the finish line, he was fifth, having passed Glock at the final corner. It was a dramatic end to a classic season, and Hamilton was champion.

The pressure had not told, but Hamilton had not enjoyed the ‘easy ride’ that was expected. Massa was left ruing a number of issues across the course of the year where points had been dropped – retiring when way in the lead of the Hungarian Grand Prix with three laps remaining was a bitter and critical blow. His victory in Brazil had been too little, too late.

And the same could become true for Nico Rosberg. Even winning in Brazil two weeks ago and in Abu Dhabi on Sunday may not be enough to give him the title. All Lewis Hamilton has to do this year is finish in the top two.

That may seem daunting, but given the way that F1 has panned out this year, it is arguably his easiest title permutation yet. Back in 2007, the McLaren and Ferrari cars were dominant and of a very even pace. Therefore, the slowest of the runners would finish fourth, and if BMW got into the mix, perhaps even lower.

2008 saw McLaren and Ferrari lead the way again, but the likes of BMW, Renault and even Toro Rosso – piloted by the brilliant Vettel – meant that there were more threats. It was easier to lose, shall we say.

In Abu Dhabi this year though, Hamilton is in the car that is by far the quickest on the grid. It is peerless in that regard. For that reason, Mercedes has won fifteen races and broken a number of long-standing F1 records.

Therefore, Hamilton – even on an off day – should finish second. Even Nico Rosberg said earlier this year that it was peace of mind knowing that you’re pretty much guaranteed second place.

So this should ease the pressure for Hamilton, but will he settle for second place?

“I come into the race weekend to try to win,” he said. “Nothing changes there.”

And it is the unrelenting hunger that Hamilton shows that also makes him the favorite for the championship. Last time out in Brazil, NBCSN asked both drivers what winning the championship would mean to them – their answers could be a sign as to the hunger for this championship.

This may be Hamilton’s title to lose, but he has the experience of title battles. Rosberg does not. Hamilton has said that this feels like he is fighting for his first title, and in many ways, it is true. It is the first title he is vying for as a Mercedes driver, and the first – without wishing to make him sound like an elderly man – as a veteran driver. He has seen so much in his eight seasons in F1, and he will be trying to charge it into the best result possible on Sunday.

Did Hamilton choke in ’07 and nearly do so in ’08? Circumstances got the better of him, shall we say. This year, he has suffered a great deal of bad luck, but is still fighting. If he were to retire from the race on Sunday, it would rob us of a classic end to a classic title fight.

Back to the original question though: will the pressure be too much for Lewis?

“In terms of pressure, I don’t particularly feel any,” Hamilton said. “I think I’ve had plenty of experience through my racing career – 15 odd years I would say, actually 20 years of racing – to be prepared for today. There’s no special recipe for it.”

The pressure has not told on Hamilton this year, but it has on Nico. In Hungary, he was so frustrated that he blew his lid at Spa after stewing over an issue for a month, making contact with his teammate after refusing to pull out of a move so he could “prove a point”. He looked troubled.

Although Rosberg has since atoned for his mistake, he was still the man to fire shots during the press conference when both drivers were asked if they had received any special orders about racing each other in Abu Dhabi.

“It’s already been discussed at the beginning of the season and several times through the season, particularly after Spa,” Hamilton said. “There’s no reason to revisit it. We’re not children, we should know what is wrong and what is right.”

The question was then thrown over to Rosberg.

“Lewis can do something to keep it clean which is drive cleanly himself,” he replied. “It’s not like he can’t do anything.”

Fighting talk? Or the cracks of a difficult season beginning to show? Make up your own mind on that one.

Either way, the pressure is immense for both drivers heading into the race weekend. Both know that this might be their best ever chance of a world title. For Rosberg, it could be his only chance. Therefore, it is one that must be taken, for whichever driver loses – failing to win in one of the most dominant cars the sport has ever seen – will be crushed.

Rudyard Kipling famously wrote in his poem If: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same…” – under the lights in Abu Dhabi, one will meet triumph and one will meet disaster. The weight of expectation is great for Hamilton. Arguably, the fear of failure is perhaps greater – yet this is one that both drivers are facing.

Regardless of who you support, be thankful that you are witnessing one of the all-time great championship battles. Sunday’s race in Abu Dhabi is going to be one for the history books.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway can have 10,000 fans for IndyCar races

Indianapolis Motor Speedway fans
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Indianapolis Motor Speedway will have crowds for its NTT IndyCar Series race weekend next month, the first time fans are allowed at the track this year.

The track announced Friday that up to 10,000 fans will be allowed in the grandstands daily from Oct. 1-4. The IndyCar Harvest GP race doubleheader will be held on the track’s road course Oct. 2-3.

IMS has played host to several events this year without fans, including the 104th Indianapolis 500 on Aug. 23 and a NASCAR-IndyCar weekend July 4-5 that included the Brickyard 400. Plans originally were made to have fans at the Indy 500 before reversing course a few weeks ahead of the race. In a letter last month, Roger Penske vowed that fans would return for the 2021 Indy 500.

“We can’t wait to see fans come through our gates for the first time in 2020,” IMS president Doug Boles said in a release. “They’ll be greeted by a vastly improved facility, featuring significant upgrades to the spectator experience. We’re also extremely grateful to have a presenting sponsor with the expertise and resources of GMR as we look to implement our detailed and comprehensive health and safety plan.”

Fans will undergo temperature screenings upon entry and also be required to wear face coverings at all times on property. The track said each attendee will receive a mask and bottle of hand sanitizer.

The Friday, Oct. 2 race will be shown at 3:30 p.m. ET on USA, and NBC will broadcast the Saturday, Oct. 3 race at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Here’s the release from Indianapolis Motor Speedway:

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020 – For the first time in 2020, Indianapolis Motor Speedway will welcome fans to the Racing Capital of the World for the INDYCAR Harvest GP presented by GMR weekend. Up to 10,000 spectators can be in the grandstands each day of racing action Oct. 1-4, per approval from the Marion County Public Health Department.

Tickets are available now via IMS.com and will be sold on a first-come, first-served basis.

The massive facility, which holds more than 300,000 people, will provide two spectator zones with up to 5,000 fans in each. The zones will be located in Turns 1 and 4 of the oval, offering strong sightlines of the road course. Strict health and safety rules will be in place, including the following:

  • Face coverings must be worn throughout the property at all times;
  • All fans will receive temperature screenings before gate entry;
  • Grandstand seats will be marked for distancing;
  • Attendees must use pre-assigned gates and remain in their designated zones.

Global Medical Response, the world leader in compassionate, quality emergency medical and patient relocation services, will be the presenting sponsor of the penultimate weekend of INDYCAR racing this season.

“We can’t wait to see fans come through our gates for the first time in 2020,” IMS President J. Douglas Boles said. “They’ll be greeted by a vastly improved facility, featuring significant upgrades to the spectator experience. We’re also extremely grateful to have a presenting sponsor with the expertise and resources of GMR as we look to implement our detailed and comprehensive health and safety plan.”

The plan, which includes each attendee receiving a mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer upon entering the track, was developed in consultation with state and local health officials.

This event weekend is highlighted by an NTT INDYCAR SERIES doubleheader, with races Friday, Oct. 2 and Saturday, Oct. 3. It will be the penultimate event of the series’ season as the field pursues the champion’s prestigious Astor Challenge Cup to be awarded Sunday, Oct. 25 at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The INDYCAR Harvest GP will pay tribute to a storied IMS event, the Harvest Classic in September 1916. The Harvest Classic was the only racing event held outside of May at IMS from 1911 through 1993. The event featured three races, all won by legendary driver Johnny Aitken.

Fans also will see a host of facility improvements during the event weekend, including more than 30 new LED video boards, refreshed concession stands and restrooms, and 5G wireless connectivity throughout the facility.

The first race will air at 3:30 p.m. (ET) Friday, Oct. 2 on the USA Network. NBC will broadcast the second race at 2:30 p.m. (ET) Saturday, Oct. 3, with WTHR-13 airing the action live in Central Indiana.

Also racing that weekend will be the first pairing of two major sports car series — the Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli and its North American counterpart, GT World Challenge America Powered by AWS. Former Indianapolis 500 pole winner Ryan Briscoe is among the drivers in the Indianapolis 8 Hour event held Sunday, Oct. 4.

The event also will showcase drivers in SRO America’s Pirelli GT4 America, GT Sports Club America and the TC America series.

The full on-track schedule is available at IMS.com.