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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

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.