F1 Preview: 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

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When the checkered flag falls at the end of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday, and fireworks light up the night sky above Yas Marina, there will be a mix of emotions up and down the Formula 1 paddock.

For either Nico Rosberg or Lewis Hamilton, there will be sheer elation; a level of jubilance neither has previously experienced, such would be the importance of winning the title to either driver.

For the likes of Felipe Massa and Jenson Button, in what looks to be the final F1 start for both drivers (albeit unconfirmed for Button), there will be sadness, pride and gratitude.

But the overwhelming feeling will be relief. At 21 races, the 2016 season has been the longest in F1 history, testing the paddock to its limits. It has been one of the most testing campaigns as well, particularly with an overhaul of the technical regulations on the cards for 2017, forcing teams to split development.

We are, however, guaranteed a championship showdown that will be memorable. Rosberg arrives in Abu Dhabi as the strong favorite, needing just a podium finish to secure a maiden world championship. Hamilton, meanwhile, enters the finale off the back of three hugely convincing victories that have ramped up the pressure on his teammate.

The cliches have already been exhausted: it’s the duel in the desert, it’s the showdown at sundown… etc. We’ve heard it all before. But can Abu Dhabi give the 2016 season one final twist in the tail on Sunday?

2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – Talking Points

The end is in sight for Rosberg

Nico Rosberg’s run to the 2016 title has been an odd one. He has nine victories to his name (as does Hamilton) and has only had a couple of bad races, yet his end to the year has been far from convincing. After his victory in Japan, all he needed to do was stay on the podium through the final four races; after three, that is exactly what he’s done.

Rounding out the season without winning would be a bit of a quiet note upon which to see out a championship, but will Nico care? He has taken the opportunities as they have come. The chance to emulate his father, Keke, who won the world title in 1982, is one that he will relish.

The biggest worry for him will probably be reliability. Rosberg was in Hamilton’s position back in 2014, facing improbable odds to win the title, yet there were reduced to nil when the ERS system on his car failed. It was a dud end to the championship fight.

Hamilton has had all the bad luck through 2016. Is Nico due a dose in Abu Dhabi?

Hamilton in all-out-attack mode

Lewis Hamilton may not be crowned world champion for a fourth time on Sunday, but if he can capture a 10th victory of the year, he would surely be remembered as the strongest runner-up in F1 history.

Sure, the luck hasn’t been there this year. But that’s racing. And after his mid-season digs and his questions for Mercedes in Malaysia, Hamilton appears to have settled into a relaxed mode through the final run of races. His victory in Brazil was, from the outside, one of the most impressive of his F1 career. Hamilton himself said that it was pretty easy…

Capping off the year with another victory would only further the questions about who deserved the title more. The Yas Marina Circuit is a track that Hamilton likes, having won here in 2011 and 2014, the latter securing him the championship. He should go strong here.

Start line tactics will obviously be a consideration – the idea of pushing Rosberg wide and dropping him down the order must have entered Hamilton’s head – but in reality, Hamilton knows that if he is to win the title on Sunday, he needs the luck that has eluded him all year long.

Verstappen, Ricciardo look to play spoilers

Max Verstappen won praise from all corners of the paddock with his wet-weather escapades in Brazil, drawing comparisons to Ayrton Senna at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, or Michael Schumacher in Spain in 1996.

But now the Dutchman and Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo will be looking to play the role of party pooper for Rosberg in Abu Dhabi. Rosberg may only need a top-three finish, but stick the two Red Bulls between him and Hamilton – just as they finished at Hockenheim earlier this year – and the title is lost by a single point. Ouch.

Red Bull has been growing in strength through the closing part of the season, and look well-placed to mount a challenge for both championships next year. Getting in the mix up front on Sunday may prevent what some fear could be a rather anti-climactic end to the season.

Massa, Button gear up to say goodbye

Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will mark the end of an era in modern-day Formula 1 as Felipe Massa and Jenson Button gear up to make what will likely be their final starts in the sport.

Massa announced in September that he would be retiring at the end of the season, while Button is stepping back from his McLaren seat for 2017. Although the Briton has an option on an F1 drive with McLaren for 2018, most expect this to go unused unless Fernando Alonso decides to call it quits.

Button has been in every F1 race this millennium, while Massa’s career stretches back to 2002. Both have enjoyed the long, storied careers drivers dream of having. To see them off in Abu Dhabi on Sunday will be an emotional moment for the entire paddock.

While a farewell victory or podium may be out of reach, let’s hope both drivers can produce a big display to say goodbye with a decent haul of points.

What else is up for grabs?

While all eyes will be on Rosberg and Hamilton in the fight for the drivers’ championship, there are a few more battles to watch out for in Abu Dhabi this weekend:

  • Sebastian Vettel, Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen will fight it out for fourth place in the drivers’ standings. 19 points separate the trio heading into the final race, with Verstappen making big inroads after his masterclass in Brazil.
  • Force India can secures its best-ever constructors’ championship finish this Sunday by holding on to fourth place. The team leads Williams by 27 points in the race for P4.
  • Manor will push to reclaim P10 in the constructors’ from Sauber, having dropping behind in Brazil after Felipe Nasr’s charge to ninth.

2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Yas Marina Circuit
Corners: 21
Lap Record: Sebastian Vettel 1:40.279 (2009)
Tire Compounds: Soft/Super-Soft/Ultra-Soft
2015 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2015 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:40.237
2015 Fastest Lap: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:44.517
DRS Zones: T21 to T1; T7 to T8

2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports app 4am ET 11/25
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 8am ET 11/25
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports app 5am ET 11/26
Qualifying: NBCSN 8am ET 11/26
Race: NBCSN 7am ET 11/27

INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500