Title in sight for Rosberg ahead of tense showdown in the desert

Nico Rosberg has only to finish on the podium at this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to clinch his maiden drivers’ championship and relieve his Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton of the sport’s number one billing.

It looks easy enough.

But history and the expert views of close observers suggest it will not be as straightforward as it looks.

The 31-year-old German has a 12 points lead ahead of the defending three-time world champion as they go into the 21st and final race of the season – a margin that makes his task appear to be a formality.

In the previous 20 races this year, Rosberg has won nine times and finished second four times – three in succession at the last three races – and he has also been third twice.

In total, he has enjoyed 15 podium finishes which suggests he has a 75 per cent chance of repeating that form and taking the title, particularly as he has had no mechanical failures all season.

His only non-finish came as a result of a collision with his British team-mate, also 31, at the Spanish Grand Prix in May, a crash that ended Rosberg’s season-opening run of four straight wins as they both landed in the kitty litter.

Hamilton will need to mirror that Rosberg streak of success with his fourth consecutive win on Sunday to provide a neat book-end to the season and keep alive his own slim hope of a fourth championship crown.

The Englishman has won twice before at the spectacular Yas Marina circuit where the ‘twilight’ race this weekend promises to provide a dramatic conclusion to a roller-coaster season.

Having trimmed Rosberg’s advantage from 33 points, following the German’s win in Japan on October 9, to 12, he also has won nine races – but has suffered a series of engine problems, poor starts and, at the Malaysian race, an engine failure that ended his race when he was leading.

As a result, Hamilton goes into Sunday’s title showdown in the unfamiliar position of not having control of his own destiny as he has done in the past.

For Rosberg, however, it is the opposite. This weekend’s tense contest in the desert will be his first as title favourite, knowing what he must do to be champion.

According to many paddock observers, that will heap the pressure on Rosberg who showed signs of nervous fragility during the Brazilian Grand Prix, where he survived to finish second, on November 13.

As much as anything, it will be a battle of nerves and concentration as much as pure speed and racing talent on Sunday evening particularly, as expected, if the Red Bulls of Dutch teenager Max Verstappen and Australian Daniel Ricciardo mount a determined victory challenge.

The Red Bull team chief Christian Horner, who compared the 19-year-old Verstappen’s virtuoso performance in Brazil, where he finished third in a rain-hit race, to some of the greatest in the history of the sport, believes his team will be involved.

“To my drivers, I'll just say 'go for it' because it's not our championship battle,” he explained. “We are out there to get the best result that we can.

“We could be Lewis Hamilton's best friend on Sunday afternoon if we manage to get both of our cars ahead of Nico. They are going to be focused on their own battle.

“There's no point Lewis winning the race by half a lap. If he's in the lead and he's smart, he's probably going to try to back the cars up so there is some racing behind him because that's the only way the result could fall his way. It's going to be fascinating..."

Hamilton made clear that he feels he can only do his best and that he has no reason to carry negative thoughts with him into such a critical race.

“I am, and will be, proud of myself if I continue to perform as I am," he said. “I am proud to have been a part of helping us win these races. What a year. To have nine wins is amazing and I am just thankful for all that. I think I have 31 wins for the Mercedes team, which is just crazy.

“Now, I’m hunting and all I can do is keep going and hope I have the reliability I have had in the last few races. I will give it everything.”

Rosberg’s recent form – he has been unable to dominate Hamilton and clinch the title with a victory – means he is likely to feel the most pressure, according to Horner.

"Of course, Nico has everything to lose," said Horner.

"It seems a top-three finish is a straightforward result for a Mercedes driver, but we are at the end of engine life, gearbox life. He's probably going to be watching his mirrors harder than anyone else. He's got everything at stake.

“Lewis' job is easier than Nico's… “

Horner added that he expected Rosberg to take a cautious approach which would make him – and Mercedes – more vulnerable to attacking driving of the Red Bull men.

“I think the first lap could be interesting,” he said. “You think about Rosberg's position… All he has to do is finish third, if Hamilton wins. And even if he takes less risk at the start and, say, drops back to fifth, the car is still quick enough that he could still get third in the race.

“He doesn't need to be third on the first lap. For sure, if he's a bit cautious - or they're cautious - on the first lap, then we'll try to take some advantage. Let’s see…”

On a sizzling weekend in a race that starts in bright sunlight and ends under floodlights, the title showdown will also feature farewells by two of the sport’s most-experienced and popular drivers, 2009 champion Briton Jenson Button and Brazilian Felipe Massa. 

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