By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Champions Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen will be saying farewell under the Abu Dhabi floodlights this weekend – the Spaniard to Formula One and the Finn to Ferrari.
With both titles won by Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton, each celebrating their fifth, the focus of the season-ending race has switched to those who are moving on – even if only around the paddock.
Raikkonen’s speech is unlikely to be long or emotional, Ferrari’s 2007 champion generally preferring to say less and do more, but the 39-year-old will be back in Sauber overalls next year.
Sunday looks realistically like the Finn’s last shot at victory, and success at Yas Marina would be a first for Ferrari who have not won any of the nine previous editions of the race at a circuit often short on thrills.
Alonso’s exit – announced in August and much talked about since then – is likely to be permanent and his absence will be felt even if he has been scrapping only for meagre points with McLaren of late.
The two times world champion might have had more titles to his name with better fortune and more astute career moves but he has remained a racer to the end, even in an uncompetitive car.
“I have won more races than I dreamed of when I came here and this part of my career is done – it was a success,” the 37-year-old told ESPN.
“I have ticked the box. I need to go for another tick and find another box to fill.”
The winner of 32 grands prix, including Monaco twice, Alonso won the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year with Toyota and is now targeting the Indianapolis 500 with McLaren to complete the ‘triple crown of motorsport’.
McLaren team mate Stoffel Vandoorne is also bowing out, headed for a new start in the electric Formula E series, while Marcus Ericsson will switch to IndyCar after relinquishing his Sauber seat.
Monaco’s Charles Leclerc is starting his last race for Sauber before joining Ferrari as Raikkonen’s replacement alongside Sebastian Vettel.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo has his 150th race, all within the Red Bull family, to celebrate before saying his own goodbyes and starting afresh at Renault.
“I’m yet to get an Abu Dhabi podium, but that would be a pretty awesome way to end my stint with Red Bull and to end the season,” he said.
“I’m sure it’s going to be emotional afterwards, especially when I cross the line for the last time with the team. But I’m going there guns a-blazing, showing a lot of love.”
Dutch team mate Max Verstappen, in the headlines after Brazil for an altercation with Force India’s Esteban Ocon, is chasing his season’s hat-trick of wins.
Saturday also represents Verstappen’s last chance to become the youngest driver, at 21, to secure a pole position. The Dutch driver is also just three points behind Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas in the drivers’ standings.
For Bottas, last year’s race winner, Sunday will be a last chance to avoid a winless season in a car that has taken both titles.
“The championship pressure is off, so we can look at this as one race where we can really go for broke,” said Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff.
With the top half of the standings effectively decided, the main battle is between McLaren, Force India, Sauber and Toro Rosso for points and prize money.
Formula Two will also crown a new champion, with Williams-bound British youngster George Russell 37 points clear of British-born Thai racer Alexander Albon with 48 to be won.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Sudipto Ganguly)