Monday, 17 November 2014

Abu Dhabi Preview: Between cup and lip

There is many a slip between cup and lip as the saying goes. And how appropriate it may seem to the season-ending and championship-decisive round that awaits us in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

Lewis Hamilton holds the aces this weekend
Photo: Octane Photography
Lewis Hamilton to this end holds the aces. He knows what he needs to do to guarantee for himself the drivers' title of 2014. And that seems well within the probable outcomes. But in this game such situations come with a massive disclaimer, as possibly no other sport encompasses a wider variety of things that can go wrong, that which come seemingly from nowhere, and which have nothing to do with whether the protagonists get it right or get it wrong. The Goddess Fortune of F1 can be, and has been, particularly cruel.

And if she decides to be cruel to Lewis this time then the path to the title will likely open up to his team mate Nico Rosberg. At no point will this be too far away from many minds. The tension throughout the Mercedes camp will this weekend fill the air like molasses. Even the imperturbable Niki Lauda admitted in advance that 'it's going to be difficult'.

Lewis needs second place in Abu Dhabi for the title to definitely be his. Seems easy enough on the face of it, given that he occupies one of only two Mercedes and the W05 has been on another level to its opponents this season. Indeed in the last round in a not atypical outcome the next guy not bedecked in silver behind was some 40 seconds adrift.

And the Yas Marina track is one on which Lewis has always excelled, particularly in the snaking street circuit-like final sector, where his precision and his ability to control a sliding rear end on the low-grip track set him apart from all others with the possible exception of Sebastian Vettel. And for all that the historical final-day swings shifting the title destination at the very last (e.g. 1964, 1986, 2010) have stuck in our minds, in reality the guy with the points advantage managing to saunter over the line with the minimum required remains far more common.

Really, all Lewis has to do is stay out of trouble, as if he does so then surely he'll take the second position he needs and with a lot to spare. Even at the Yas Marina track, where overtaking remains relatively tricky, something akin to four years ago when Fernando Alonso got stuck behind Vitaly Petrov for most of the way surely will not be so in the age of DRS, degradation/multiple pit stops as well as with the Mercs' mammoth performance advantage.

But then again such a trouble-free time is easier said than done, and especially within the melting pot of an F1 weekend.

The season-decider in 2007 didn't go well for Lewis
By Morio (photo taken by Morio) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/
copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.
org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps especially for Lewis. Twice he has entered the concluding race with a finish apparently insultingly within reach all that was required to clinch the honours - in 2007 he just needed a second place if Alonso won and (in a much more likely scenario) just a fifth if Kimi Raikkonen was first home; then 12 months later he required a mere fifth place whatever anyone else did. But in the first one he managed to miss out on the title and in the other he would have done had the race been a couple of corners shorter.

He can point to bad luck, particularly in his first attempt, but still if we take a step back for a wider view in neither did he seem his usual self. Almost as if, all of a sudden, the possibility of driving within yourself for the least required was incongruous with his instincts to attack, and what we ended up with was slightly painful. That he ended up abandoning the approach that had served him so well since his earliest days of karting. As Martin Brundle noted back in Austin, that while Lewis needs a second place 'Lewis doesn't do second very well'.

Perhaps learning the lessons he's been insistent lately that he's going to change nothing when he gets to Abu Dhabi: 'I'm not going to do anything differently...I'll be pushing as hard as I can in Abu Dhabi' he stated after the Brazil race in this spirit.

Possibly too Lewis's team faces a similar conflict, as well as face the risk that a possible urge to be cautious may start to work against itself.

This was outlined by Gary Anderson recently: 'The problem is that when everybody is desperate for things to go right, the way they do things can change' he said. 'You triple-check everything rather than double-checking and rather than just going about your business in the normal way, you are thinking about it too much.

Mercedes reliability hasn't been perfect this year,
 as Nico found out in Singapore
Photo: Octane Photography
'That's the worst thing you can do, because suddenly the way of doing things that's served you well all through the year isn't the same as the way you're doing it now.

'That's when there's a risk of engineering in problems. The fear of getting something wrong can often be responsible for doing just that.

'For both the team and the drivers, it will be essential to do everything as normal in Abu Dhabi. But because of the circumstances, it's very difficult for it to be just another race, and the team management will have their work cut out keeping everyone calm.'

Which brings us neatly to likely the greatest risk to Lewis taking the title. Reliability, which has not been perfect for Mercedes this season, and if it strikes in the Yas Marina race will likely decide the title destination there and then. Temperatures in Abu Dhabi will be high of course (though that the race takes place in the evening, with the second part at night, helps take the edge off this), and it's at such moments that Merc breakages have crept in this campaign, such as those seen in Singapore and Canada.

Then there is of course the fact that it's the final round wherein power units and gearboxes which have limits on usage by regulation will be at the end of their designed life-cycles. You can add to this too that the Yas Marina track is a tough one on engines.

It's understandable therefore that the senior management at Merc in recent weeks when a microphone has been before them have talked about little else than the need to avoid car failures.

Then there is the simple happenstance that F1 also excels in - a puncture, a wayward backmarker, a wheel not attached at a pit stop. If anything like that strikes at a vital moment matters could pivot.

While all of this is going on perhaps the person with the least to think about is one Nico Rosberg. As it is he with the clearest sense of what he needs to do. Basically what he can. Pretty much like every time. Almost alone in the Mercedes squad he can approach the weekend in a habitual frame of mind.

In a sense, Nico heads into the weekend with the simplest task
Photo: Octane Photography
Nico can attack and aim for the win, knowing that it is matters outside of his control that will otherwise determine whether he gets a championship too from his weekend's work.

That was evident in his words immediately following his Interlagos win: '(I'll be) fully motivated, full attack, just optimistic, believing in it because that's the best approach for me and it worked this weekend. That's how I'm going to go into Abu Dhabi.'

And a recurring theme of 2014 is that at the point that you think Nico is down and out he delivers a counter-punch. In a sense it would be in keeping with it all if he delivers a definitive one at the Yas Marina venue this Sunday.

This Abu Dhabi round has been a notorious one for close on 12 months, given of course twice the normal number of points are on offer for every place in the top ten. Thankfully (though touching several pieces of wood) it doesn't seem too likely to alter the championship outcome, which was the major fear for most of the effect of this particular wheeze. It only will be critical if Lewis finishes between third and sixth (inclusive) and Nico wins, or else in the event of some other similar but even less probable combination.

It nevertheless will be interesting how if at all it changes the drivers' approach and not just for the front two, as Pat Symonds outlined: 'In the knowledge that double points are up for grabs they must balance the conservative approach of protecting their overall finishing position for the year with the awareness that a risky overtaking manoeuvre could seal an unexpected elevation in the points'. If the points available has been doubled, so has the potential punishment of a DNF.

It will be interesting too to see whether there are any resultant indirect shifts in the competitive order and reliability from the temptation of the additional points available. As noted many technical parts will be nearing the end of their lives, but it's been thought that a few have been saving relatively fresh power unit elements for the rewards of the Abu Double.

Double points might have a radical impact on the championship order behind too. Indeed it was looking fairly knife-edge even without it. While Daniel Ricciardo wrapped up third place in the table last time out in Brazil, we then have Vettel, Alonso and Valtteri Bottas within three points of each other. There are plenty of others closely grouped further back also.

As for the constructors' order all are rather spaced out by now, so even with double points it will take something very strange to happen for that to change.

But this weekend all eyes will be on the front. And it will be the possibility of that something very strange happening that will be occupying most minds.

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