Op-Ed: What Abu Dhai might tell us about 2011

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Yes, yes, yes, I know. We have one of the biggest Formula 1 races in recent memory just days away, a race that features four drivers with legitimate shots at the world drivers’ title.

But I can’t help but be thinking about next season.

In fairness, part of the reason is because I am wondering how some particular results from this season are going to impact the next. Maybe part is that Abu Dhabi does feel like it is setting up to be a site to crown Fernando Alonso the champ.

So, as the race unfolds, here are some future story lines I’ll be watching for — to see if any seeds for 2011 clearly are sown this weekend.

1. How will the McLaren duo behave and interact when they both are years removed from the drivers’ title?

I think this will be a more pertinent question to Jenson Button than to Lewis Hamilton. Somehow, even with his early wins, I got the feeling that Jenson this season was able to take part in those “buddy films” because he’d just been to the top. He could, for lack of a better word, chill. But a fifth-place finish this season might raise the specter of his 2009 title really being about the Ross Brawn car. Will Jenson have more to prove next season? And how will that affect the team dynamics at the “team that was Lewis Hamilton’s?”

Will we see any hint of a “new” Jenson now that he’s out of the title hunt?

2. Does Felipe Massa settle in as the new Rubens Barrichello?

The neatest, easiest way for him to answer this question is to out-race Alonso this weekend, especially if doing so costs Alonso the title. (I suppose we might all question the possibility of that, but unless Alonso is right behind Massa and their swapping places will change the championship results, I’m not sure how Massa could have that big a say in the finale.)

But will Massa head into Abu Dhabi under strict orders to support Alonso’s title fight? If he does, will there be any lingering psychological ramification?

3. What will Michael Schumacher’s final statement of 2010 be?

I can’t imagine that Michael will want to end the year on anything like how Brazil went down, with his letting a fresh-tired Nico Rosberg pass him. Can Michael make any statement that will put the other drivers and teams “on notice” that he will be stronger in 2011?

4. Who will come out on top between Williams and Force India?

With Force India limping to the finish in a way that makes the latter-season Brawn GP team in 2010 look like Ferrari in 2002, my money would be on Williams’ being able to hold on to that one-point lead in the constructors’ race. Why this is important is the extra money that will come with that better finish. Both teams could use the extra cash — maybe Williams especially if rumors of its losing three or four sponsors are true.

5. How will the “on the bubble” drivers perform in their potential finale?

This is purely my thinking, but I’d say any or all of the following drivers might not be back in 2011: Sakon Yamamoto, Bruno Senna, Lucas di Grassi, Jarno Trulli (even if he’s denying that today), Jaime Alguersuari, Sebastian Buemi, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Nick Heidfeld, Vitaly Petrov and Nico Hulkenberg.

And that’s not counting Christian Klien, Pedro de la Rosa and Karun Chandhok. (Or, if you want to really go conspiracy theory, Mark Webber. And, oh yes, I did just write that.)

Can any of these drivers perform well enough to secure either their current seat or another on the grid?

That’s the short list of what I’ll be watching for this weekend, beyond the obvious: Who wins the drivers’ title.

Any 2011 story lines you’ll be following?

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