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Formula One: Desert showdown

The season-long battle between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg will be decided in Abu Dhabi

The last time a Mercedes’ driver won the Formula One (F1) Drivers’ title was in 1955, with Juan Manuel Fangio at the helm. The team now stands on the cusp of another F1 victory: It’s clear that one of its drivers, Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg, will win the championship.

Mercedes are preparing for the season-ending race, to be held this weekend in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in atypical fashion. The champagne and winner T-shirts must have been ordered, yes, but they will also have a sports psychiatrist on standby, should the driver finishing second takes the loss personally.

Since the new rules envisage a greater role for engines and powertrains, Mercedes have had the advantage right from the season-opening Australian Grand Prix (GP). For nine months, Hamilton and Rosberg have been chasing the elusive Drivers’ title. The fight has been intense and somewhat bitter.

For Hamilton, the 2008 world champion, the title was the only reason he moved from McLaren to Mercedes in 2013. It gives him a chance to add to his solitary championship win and start clawing his way back into the pantheons of F1 greats. Hamilton is widely regarded as being in the same class as Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, and it hurt him to see the latter win championship after championship in his superior car.

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Mercedes’ Nico Roseberg (left) and teammate Lewis Hamilton during Brazilian Grand Prix in Sao Paulo on 8 November. Photo: Vanderlei Almedia/AFP

Punting on the all-powerful Mercedes engines, he has won 10 of 18 races so far, with the possibility of adding an 11th to his tally this weekend. Going by the number of wins, he should have been galloping to his second crown. To put this in perspective, when Hamilton captured his maiden title in 2008 with McLaren, he had amassed enough points to win in only five races.

But the F1 is never simple. And this is where Rosberg comes into the picture. A rule change has ensured there are double points for the last race in Abu Dhabi. So the race winner will get 50 points instead of the usual 25, the second-placed driver will get 36 instead of 18, and so on. With 17 points dividing the two Mercedes’ drivers, it means that if Hamilton (334 points) is to clinch the championship, he will have to win this weekend’s race outright or at least finish second if Rosberg (317 points) wins.

“This is a rule they have brought in for the first time and it would suck to lose the title on double points," Hamilton said in October, ahead of the US GP. “It’s a fantastic rule, it is the best thing in a long time," Rosberg said, jokingly, at the Brazilian GP weekend earlier this month. “Many fans are not going to like it and say it is artificial, which I understand because it is. We need to review after the season whether it was good or bad," he had added on a serious note.

Hamilton has been in last-race title-fights thrice before—in 2010 at Abu Dhabi, when he only had an outside chance against Vettel, Alonso and Mark Webber; in 2008, when he won the championship, stealing it from under Felipe Massa’s nose in a stunning finish at São Paulo, Brazil; and in 2007, his rookie season in the F1, when he lost by one point to Kimi Räikkönen, again at São Paulo.

“Hamilton started winning when he first came into the F1 and he expects to keep winning all the time. But since 2008, he hasn’t been able to add to that one title for a variety of reasons," says F1 commentator James Allen. “This season in particular, due to the rule changes, driving an F1 car has become a very hands-on job and it is about getting the most out of your package at all times. At different times, Hamilton hasn’t been able to get as much out of the car as Rosberg, and this is the reason why he hasn’t run away with the championship."

Rosberg has F1 in his blood—his father is the 1982 world champion Keke Rosberg—but he has not tasted much success. He didn’t win a single race with the British team Williams in four seasons (2006-09) and only won his first race (the 2012 Chinese GP) in his third season with Mercedes. This season, he has won five races, bringing his career tally to eight race wins, which pales in comparison with his teammate’s career record of 32 wins.

So when Hamilton signed on for Mercedes, many expected Rosberg to play second fiddle. But he has proved everyone wrong, just as he did when he was paired for three years (2010-12) with the legendary Michael Schumacher. A championship car has helped him lift his game.

Relations between the two have been tense. At the Monaco GP in May, Hamilton alleged, Rosberg had “out-braked himself and slipped" out of qualifying on his final run, thereby denying Hamilton a chance to get pole position. The gloves were off when Hamilton refused to let Rosberg pass in the Hungarian GP in July, ignoring team orders. Rosberg replied to this slight by driving into Hamilton “on purpose" at the Belgian GP in August, pushing the British driver into a point-less retirement. Mercedes reprimanded Rosberg for this.

While Hamilton has battled retirements and reliability issues at many junctures, Rosberg has taken full advantage of his misfortune whenever possible. Rosberg has managed to secure 10 pole positions so far this season. Starting his races from the top end of the grid, he has had less trouble in churning out consistent, point-scoring results, helping him keep pace with Hamilton’s race-winning runs.

It is a nightmarish scenario for a team trying to win its first Drivers’ title in 59 years. No wonder Mercedes want a psychiatrist present in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

The Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry this season

u Mercedes establish early supremacy in 2014, there are indications of intra-team rivalry

uHamilton wins four of the first five races to lead the championship

u Rosberg fires the first salvo at the Monaco GP. He allegedly “slides" out of qualifying, denying his teammate a chance at pole. Stewards accept his “mistake". Hamilton isn’t pleased, calls him “just a colleague, not friend"

u Mercedes battle reliability issues mid-season. Hamilton retires in Canada and fights back in Austria and Germany as Rosberg wins and stretches the lead. Hamilton’s win in Britain helps keep the points’ gap within reach

u In Hungary, Hamilton refuses team orders to let Rosberg pass him. In Belgium, Rosberg “knowingly" hits Hamilton, destroying his race and stretching his own championship lead

u Hamilton begins a brilliant comeback, winning five consecutive races in Italy, Singapore, Japan, Russia and the US. Rosberg puts the brakes on this momentum in Brazil, setting up a grand finale.

Chetan Narula is the author of History Of Formula One: The Circus Comes To India.

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