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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

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