ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) It seems simple for Nico Rosberg: Finishing in the top three at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix guarantees his first Formula One championship.
The German driver has pole position for the title thanks to a 12-point lead over Lewis Hamilton heading into Sunday’s showdown.
Even if Hamilton wins the race, Rosberg will clinch the bigger prize if he crosses the line third.
“Hopefully, the fans will get a great show to end the year,” said Rosberg, who is bidding to stop his Mercedes teammate from winning a third straight title and fourth overall.
Rosberg has been runner-up for the past two seasons, but the odds are stacked in his favor now.
If Hamilton finishes the race in second place, Rosberg needs only finish sixth, and if Hamilton places third, Rosberg needs eighth. Fourth place for Hamilton means Rosberg is champion regardless of where he places.
“(They) have been exceptional, and either one would make a worthy champion,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “After such a battle of endurance, the winner can say without doubt that they earned it.”
Both have won nine races each this year, and Hamilton has scooped up the past three to stay in contention.
Rosberg may be caught in two minds how to approach the race.
He does not need pole and can just sit behind Hamilton, knowing that the Mercedes car is easily fast enough to get him on the podium.
In fact, Rosberg has finished in the top three in 15 of 20 races this season, including the past eight.
But one notable factor may encourage him to race hard, rather than play it safe.
Fourth place in the championship is still up for grabs between Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, the 19-year-old Dutchman who has taken F1 by storm.
Vettel, a four-time F1 champion, is only five points ahead of Verstappen, whose relentless hunger to impose himself – not to mention his increasingly fraught relationship with Vettel – may indirectly impact on Rosberg.
If Rosberg chooses to protect third place, rather than chase down Hamilton, he could get caught up in a potential scrap between Vettel and Verstappen, who has been involved in incidents with Ferrari drivers Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.
“A small mistake during one of the many corner sequences can ruin a lap,” Verstappen said about the 5 1/2-kilometer (3 1/2-mile) Abu Dhabi circuit.
Missing out on the title would be especially demoralizing for Rosberg, considering he has been in a strong position for much of the season.
Last year, Hamilton won with three races to spare, but in 2014, the title went to the last race. However, Rosberg was only in it that year because of the double points rule in place for the last race. The hugely unpopular rule was quickly abolished.
Rosberg has failed to finish only one race this season, when he collided with Hamilton on the first lap of the Spanish GP in May, sending both drivers out of the race.
A similar incident would gift Rosberg the title, but Hamilton does not anticipate any cynical tactics from his teammate.
“I don’t go into the race expecting anything less than a fair fight,” Hamilton said. “I like to think higher of (Rosberg), and that wouldn’t be something he would do.”
Rosberg trailed Hamilton by 19 points heading into the summer break, but then turned the tables on Hamilton, who seemed to be drifting out of the reckoning only a few races ago.
Engine failure cost Hamilton a seemingly certain victory at the Malaysian GP.
Rosberg followed up that stroke of luck by padding out his advantage to 33 points with victory at the Japanese GP, where Hamilton finished third.
“I’m faced with pretty impossible odds,” said Hamilton, who has been hampered by engine problems. “But I can’t give up.”
Rosberg appears to have settled on a cautious approach for Sunday.
“I was joking that I would still be taking things one race at a time,” Rosberg said. “But, the more I think about it, that’s actually not as crazy as it sounds.”
He simply has too much to lose.