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.

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds