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F1 Preview: 2017 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

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It all ends here.

After 20 races, five different winners, three victorious teams and one newly-minted world champion, the sun will set on the 2017 Formula 1 season in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.

Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel’s battle for the world championship had been expected to rage all the way to the season finale, only for a twist in form to settle proceedings with two races to spare.

While the final race of the year as the Yas Marina Circuit may be a dead rubber, there are still a few things to play for in the championship standings.

And with plenty of eras coming to an end on Sunday, it promises to be an emotional event.

2017 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – Talking Points

Setting the stage for 2018

The race for the 2017 titles may already be over, but next year’s battle is well and truly underway. With Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari taking one win each in the last three races, it is clear that the margins at the front of the field are incredibly tight indeed.

With the technical regulations remaining largely unchanged heading into next year, teams have already been able to fit parts that will help the development of their 2018 cars, with the results acting as an early indication of the fights that may follow next year.

The nature of the Abu Dhabi circuit makes it hard to pick a clear favorite. Ferrari and Red Bull have been strong on high-downforce layouts, while Mercedes impressed in both Brazil and Mexico, surprising itself in the process.

Nico Rosberg proved at the end of 2015 just how important victories in the ‘dead rubber’ events can be, with a hat-trick of wins giving him the momentum that arguably was decisive in his 2016 championship win.

Can anyone upstage Lewis Hamilton in Abu Dhabi and end the year on a high?

Toro Rosso, Renault, Haas set to fight for P6

While the top four positions in the F1 constructors’ championship are locked in and Williams looks nailed on for P5, the battle to finish sixth – and capture the uplift in prize money that comes with it – will rage on to the checkered flag in Abu Dhabi.

Toro Rosso currently leads the way on 53 points, but has scored just one point since the Singapore Grand Prix. With a combined total of six grands prix experience between drivers Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly, the Red Bull B-team’s position is far from safe.

Renault (49 points) has certainly been on the up through the second half of the season, with the arrival of Carlos Sainz Jr. giving the team a shot in the arm, yet its lack of reliability and repeated power unit failures have dashed hopes of getting ahead already.

Haas’ second season has exceeded expectations in terms of performance and the team’s internal goals, yet it is still sat eighth overall, equal to its rookie year result. Running with 47 points but a more reliable Ferrari power unit than its two rivals, the American team could yet vault two places up the order.

Numerous eras ending in Abu Dhabi

Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will mark the end of a number of important eras in modern F1 history, as explored by Tony DiZinno earlier this week.

F1 cars may have undergone a dramatic visual overhaul for 2017, but there will arguably be an even greater change next year when the ‘Halo’ cockpit protection is introduced for 2018. The aesthetics have been widely debated – and not always for the best – but the key safety improvements have received praise from many drivers.

The McLaren-Honda era will also come to an end after three difficult years, while Felipe Massa will also bid farewell to F1 for good this time when he makes his final race start.

It may also end up being the final time we see Pascal Wehrlein and/or Marcus Ericsson in F1, with both their futures at Sauber in doubt as Ferrari pushes to plant both Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi at the team next year.

Final driver market puzzle pieces fall into place

Sauber holds two of the final three free seats in F1 for 2018, but the decision appears very much as being Leclerc alongside either Ericsson or Giovinazzi, depending who gets their way out of Sauber’s backers and Ferrari.

The only other seat on offer for 2018 lies at Williams, but momentum appears to be gathering for Robert Kubica to make a remarkable comeback to F1, seven years after sustaining severe injuries to his right arm and hand in a rally accident that appeared to end his single-seater career.

Kubica will test for Williams next week in Abu Dhabi in the Pirelli running, and relying all goes to plan, he should be lining up alongside Lance Stroll next year.

The driver market is nearly complete. Will we get the final full picture in Abu Dhabi?

A farewell to Formula 1 on NBC Sports

This weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will be the 98th and final Formula 1 race to be carried by the NBC Sports Group following confirmation of the sport’s move away for 2018.

Over five years, NBC Sports Group has grown F1 live viewership by 65 per cent, and is on course to have its most-watched F1 season since acquiring the rights in 2013.

The 98-race stint has seen three different drivers – Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg – win world titles, with a further four – Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen, Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen – winning races.

A number of key F1 figures have bowed out of the sport, including Mark Webber, Jenson Button, Felipe Massa (twice!), Ron Dennis, and, to some extent, even ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone.

The last five years have been among the most important in F1 history with the changes in power both on and off the grid, and it is an era we shall look back on fondly.

2017 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times

Could Scott Dixon someday break Foyt, Andretti wins and championships records?

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With five races left in the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Scott Dixon is in the driver’s seat to potentially earn a fifth career IndyCar championship.

After winning Sunday at Toronto, Dixon now has a 62-point edge over second-ranked and defending series champ Josef Newgarden and a 70-point lead over third-ranked Alexander Rossi.

The triumph north of the border was Dixon’s third there, as well as his 44th career IndyCar win, third-highest in IndyCar annals.

Add in the four IndyCar championships and those are stellar numbers indeed.

What makes things all the more amazing is Dixon has done all that in under 18 full seasons on the IndyCar circuit. Heck, he’s only 37 years old, too (although he turns 38 on July 22).

Dixon’s championships have come in 2003 (his first full season in IndyCar after two prior seasons in CART/Champ Car), 2008, 2013 and most recently in 2015.

The quiet, unassuming New Zealander has been one of the most successful drivers ever not just in IndyCar, but in all forms of motorsports.

When his name is mentioned, it’s typically included with the only two drivers who have more career wins than he does: A.J. Foyt (67 wins and seven championships, both records) and Mario Andretti (52 wins and four titles).

That’s a pretty lofty pair to be part of.

One might think that after all the success he’s had, Dixon could easily walk away from IndyCar and Chip Ganassi Racing and enjoy an early retirement.

But competing in and winning races isn’t really a job for Dixon. He enjoys what he’s doing so much that he easily could keep doing what he’s doing – and at a high level – for another seven or more years, at least.

So, can Dixon catch Mario and A.J.? The former would be easier than the latter, for sure.

Numerically, it’s possible – at least part of it:

* Dixon can easily be competitive into his mid-40s.

* He’s averaged three-plus wins every season since 2007 (37 wins from then through Sunday). That means if he can keep that average going, he could reach 24 more wins – to overtake Foyt – by 2026. Yes, that may be a stretch to even imagine, but if there’s any current driver who potentially could overtake Foyt, it’s Dixon.

* Dixon already has three wins this season, and with five more races still to go, he could easily win another one, two or maybe even three more in 2018 as he continues his road to the championship. And let’s not forget that with each additional win, that’s one win closer to overtaking Andretti and Foyt.

In his usual modest and humble manner, Dixon downplays not just talk comparing him with Andretti and Foyt, but also overtaking one or both.

“I think A.J. is pretty safe,” he said. “He’s a long ways ahead. … Eight (championships) is an infinity away. Takes a long time to get eight.”

But that doesn’t mean Dixon can’t keep working at approaching Foyt’s mark.

“I think for us, we take it race by race,” he said. “We’re in the business of winning races. If we’re not doing that, I won’t have a job for too long. That’s the focus for right now.”

If he wins the championship this year, he’ll pass Andretti’s championship mark. That would be one record down, three to go.

And if he can win nine more races over the next few seasons, he’ll pass Andretti’s 52 career wins, making it two records down and two more to go.

“Right now with 44 wins, next on the list is Mario I think at 52 or something,” Dixon said after Sunday’s win. “We’ll see how it goes. Right now, we’re just trying to get the job done for the team.”

And he’s doing a darn good job at that indeed – with likely even more success still to come.

Follow @JerryBonkowski