Lewis Hamilton & Nico Rosberg prepare for one final battle
|Abu Dhabi Grand Prix|
|Date: 21-23 NovemberCoverage: Live on BBC TV, Radio 5 live and onlineRace starts: Coverage begins at 12:10 GMT on 23 November. Race at 13:00 GMT.Qualifying starts: 13:00 GMT on 22 November|
On the roof of the Mercedes building in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix paddock, Lewis Hamilton sat burnished in golden desert light.
Reclining on a sofa, fashionable flat-peak cap, designer sunglasses, white shorts. As if he did not have a care in the world.
If the tension of one of the most important races of his career was getting to him, Hamilton was hiding it well.
Apart from his Mercedes team shirt, he looked like a film star relaxing on a beach. And he was certainly not acting like a man who by the end of the weekend will be facing one extreme of emotions or another.
Hamilton, like his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, will leave Abu Dhabi either on top of the world or in the pits of despair.
By Sunday evening, one of them will be world champion, riding a wave of confidence into the close season; the other a beaten man who must spend the winter building himself back up to do it all over again next year.
Betraying the tension
Whether by design or not, both Hamilton and Rosberg have generally projected an air of composure and calm so far at the Yas Marina circuit - smiling and matter of fact in their many media interviews on Thursday, walking about the paddock with typically quick, directed intent during the first practice day on Friday.
The mask has slipped just once, just enough to lay bare the pressure that has been building up through this hyper-intense season.
In the official news conference on Thursday, a provocative question to Hamilton brought a reply in kind - and an even spikier rejoinder from Rosberg.
Two controversial incidents have proved turning points in one way or another this season - in Monaco, where Rosberg ran wide on his final qualifying lap and prevented Hamilton from having a chance to beat him to pole; and in Belgium, where the two collided.
For both, Hamilton feels Rosberg was guilty of gamesmanship, to put it politely.
And when he was asked whether they needed to talk before the race to ensure there was no 'argy-bargy' here in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton said: "We don't need to. It's already been discussed at the beginning of the season and several times through the season and particularly after Spa.
"So there's no reason to revisit it. We're not children; we should know what is wrong and what is right."
Rosberg, for his part, has all season smarted over various incidents in which he feels Hamilton has wronged him - particularly in chopping across his nose to prevent himself being passed in Bahrain and in not acceding to a request to let Rosberg pass him in Hungary, when they were on different strategies.
Do you have anything to add, Rosberg was asked?
"Just that, yes, Lewis can do something to keep it clean, which is drive cleanly himself," he said.
Sitting in the row in front, McLaren driver Jenson Button widened his eyes and smiled at that. It was not hard to work out where he stands on the incidents in question.
The psychology of a title showdown
This, it is clear, is not "just another race", as the two Mercedes drivers have been at pains to paint it in the run-up.
But there is a reason for their feigned nonchalance.
"You need to go through the processes, as boring as it sounds," says former F1 driver Mark Webber, who has his own experience of an Abu Dhabi title decider.
"You need to get through your Friday session, get to qualifying and have a clean grand prix.
"In 2010, I was running lots of scenarios through my head, which I believe Nico and Lewis will be as well.
"There is the double points in the background. Lewis can sit in second place. He will have rolled that through his head many, many times: 'Will it be enough just to sit there and close the championship out?'
"I found myself going through those scenarios more than you would do in any other race because you know this race when the flag drops there is going to be a championship decided."
Rising tensions, for drivers and team
Webber's experience of a title decider came in 2010, with his own team-mate Sebastian Vettel and two other drivers, Hamilton and Fernando Alonso.
"The tension inside the whole team starts to build up to a point it has never been to in the year," said the Australian, in an interview for a film to be shown in the BBC One coverage this weekend.
"All the engineers and mechanics are focusing on their job like they never have done in their lives. They can see the rivalry between the drivers get to this pivotal point."
The fear for everyone at Mercedes, bar Rosberg, is that a mechanical problem of some kind will hit Hamilton and prove decisive in the championship.
Team boss Toto Wolff has already described this as a "nightmare" scenario, not least because Hamilton has already had more car failures this year than Rosberg, to the extent that three times he has had to come back from about a victory's worth of points deficit.
The advantage between the two has ebbed and flowed through the season, heightened by each man's frustration at the other's behaviour, and the battle has tested the relationship of these two former friends to its limit.
"Those two guys are learning more about themselves," Webber says. "How it has ebbed and flowed, the dynamics between the pair of them and how they're dealing with each other under extreme pressure; you only learn that stuff when the kitchen is absolutely boiling and that has absolutely been the case this year.
"The relationship will probably never be the same again. In twenty years, over a glass of red, maybe, but at the moment it is personal and they both want to win the world title."
'If Lewis doesn't win it, there is something wrong'
Hamilton is the man in the best position to achieve that goal. Double points will be awarded controversially here but even so, with a 17-point lead, Hamilton needs only to finish second to be sure of the title even if Rosberg wins the race.
With the best car in the business by far, that should be eminently do-able, reliability permitting.
But that's not the only reason to suspect that the most likely outcome is Hamilton doing what he says he has set out to do, and taking the title in style with a victory.
Hamilton was in better shape on Friday, both on single-lap pace and in race trim, but he was again beaten to pole position by Rosberg - and by the substantial margin of 0.386secs.
But plenty of times this season Hamilton has proved capable of beating Rosberg after qualifying behind him and this time he does not even need to. It would be out of character for Hamilton not to try if he sees the opportunity but he has already hinted he may just sit behind his team-mate, saying in his BBC Sport column this week: "I am certainly not going to take any stupid risks, because I don't need to."
"Lewis has been on fire around Abu Dhabi in previous years," Webber said. "I've seen him do things around there… He's destroyed the field in many seasons in a car that has been pretty mediocre to be honest.
"So Nico's going to have his work cut out because Lewis is phenomenally quick around Abu Dhabi."
Rosberg arrives in Abu Dhabi fresh from a convincing weekend in Brazil, in which he topped every session and won the race, halting a run of four consecutive successes by Hamilton.
"Nico has proved this year many times he has what it takes to be a world champion," Webber says. "Brazil was a pivotal weekend. Lewis had many victories leading up to it. Brazil is not an easy track to nail. it had a resurfaced circuit, they had to get on top of things really quickly. Nico dealt with that race extremely well.
"But Lewis has the upper hand, of course he does. He has the points on the table."
"They've both done super jobs," said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, "but if Lewis doesn't win it after winning 10 grands prix you'd have to say there is something wrong. He deserves it. But a puncture, these power-units are coming to the end of their lives, anything can happen."