Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 9 December 2019

Abu Dhabi F1: Lewis Hamilton the main man but challengers Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen not far behind

With championship in the bag, Mercedes driver will be aiming for his fifth win at Yas Marina Circuit

So Lewis Hamilton already has the 2019 Formula One championship in the bag, his team mate Valtteri Bottas second, and their Mercedes team the victorious constructor.

Much of the talking is done, it seems, and neither driver took part in Thursday's official media duties. But that doesn't mean there is nothing to play for this weekend in Abu Dhabi. Far from it. This might be the season's bow, but the competition will be as fierce as ever.

In F1, the battle to be the fastest when the new chapter opens in March has been underway for months. The racing might not start until then, but the fight for supremacy never stops.

Hamilton is a six time world champion, and four time winner here. But there's not a chance the other teams are going to wave his Mercedes through on the Yes Marina Circuit and let him enjoy the procession.

This race is all about laying down markers, eye-balling the opposition, sometimes within the drivers's own team, and getting an edge for 2020.

The new blood, in the shape of Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, Red Bull's Max Verstappen, took centre stage on Thursday and they're hungry for a piece of what Hamilton has.

Leclerc's team mate Sebastian Vettel was also absent from the event, but it had earlier been announced he'd been excused press duties as he was celebrating the arrival of a baby boy with his partner Hannah.

This would have been the first instance of the German and Leclerc being in the same room since they had talks with team boss Mattia Binotto at Maranello last week following their collision in Brazil.

Leclerc was keen to put the matter to rest though, insisting the whole thing had been resolved amicably. He said the team had looked at the incident and focused on what they could do to ensure the problem did not reoccur, with everyone involved taking a day out to examine the footage.

The incident occurred when Vettel was trying to re-take fourth place after Leclerc had passed him three turns previously, with five laps to go.

Looking back at the crash, Leclerc said he and Vettel both had cause to look at their actions.

"It was unfortunate," Leclerc said. "The touch was extremely small."

The pair will have to be "less aggressive" towards each other, he said.

"We will be able to race," Leclerc said, indicating there was no lasting rift. "We're both competitive and want to win. We need to find the right compromise – we both race for the same team. We need to give each other a bit more space."

Over the season, Leclerc thought that the team had improved after a mixed start. "Overall we've progressed, which is the most important thing," he said.

Verstappen was also happy with the way Red Bull had moved along.

"It's been very promising and we've had some good results," he said.

In an interview with The National, both Verstappen and Leclerc, currently placed third and fourth in the championship respectively, were cited by F1 analyst and former team boss Eddie Jordan as the most serious competition for Hamilton and Bottas in the 2020 season.

Neither man appears to be letting future prospects of success go their heads though. Both were still concentrating on the matter at hand, which is ensuring the highest possible finish on Sunday. They also seemed relaxed in each other's company.

When asked which car was going to be fastest on Sunday, Verstappen shrugged and said: "I don't know. We'll find out."

He said the three top teams had been close to each other in the last three races, and hoped for a similarly competitive situation on Sunday.

Joining Leclerc and Verstappen to talk was Kevin Magnussen of Haas, a driver and team who have suffered a disappointing season.

He said the team knew they had problems as early on as Bahrain, despite early indications being that the car was performing well.

"We've got to come back stronger next year," he said.

As regards second-placed Bottas, Abu Dhabi is likely to prove tough for the driver – it was announced that Mercedes had been forced to replace power unit elements on the Finn’s car, meaning, under F1 rules, he’ll have to start from the back of the grid.

Bottas was unfortunate to suffer Mercedes’ first mechanical failure since Austria 2018 at the Brazilian Grand Prix last time out, his car developing a catastrophic oil leak that forced him to return to the pits and retire from the race. His penalty comes as only a certain number of replacement engine parts are permitted each season.

On a more personal note, he also announced the end of his three-year marriage to Finnish swimmer Emilia, an event which is unlikely to make Sunday's drive any easier for him.

It is the 11th time the grid will line up in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. It has been a decade of thrills, and these supreme drivers will be giving everything to come back next year with one eye on Hamilton's crown.

Updated: November 28, 2019 08:13 PM

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