“It feels like I have been racing Lewis (Hamilton) forever,” said a tired Nico Rosberg, shortly after winning his maiden Formula One title.
You can sense the need for this remark. From Rosberg’s point of view, the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was a straightforward race. Get a good start, stay out of trouble and even if Hamilton speeds away into the distance, maintain a podium place to mathematically seal the championship.
Only, Rosberg did not account for Hamilton’s tactics of backing him up into traffic, with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen closing in. Hamilton had his reasons obviously – this was the only way he could win the title, and fair play to him. But that exercise meant a long, fighting end to the race for Rosberg.
The mind-games with Hamilton
“It was really intense out there, and so tough in the end. Those last couple of laps with those two guys behind. If I had dropped behind them, it was over,” the 2016 champion said, in the post-race conference.
This is the thing about Hamilton. He does not accept defeat easily. It is the hallmark of any racer, and the same could be said about any of the other prominent drivers – from oldies like Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, to multiple-time champion Vettel, to newbies Daniel Ricciardo. Even Rosberg comes under this bracket.
However, Hamilton – and we have seen a similar streak in Verstappen too – falls under the category that would go against the norm, for they believe that racing is out on the track, not in the pits, or even on strategy calculators on the pit-wall. You can compare him to Michael Schumacher if you want, or even Ayrton Senna, in that respect. It is easy to judge their actions in terms of sportsman spirit or morality even, but they are or were pure racers. Little else matters to them, except overtaking the next car on track and crossing the finish line first.
Rosberg has felt undone by his approach of Hamilton in the past. There would be the odd overtake, where his teammate would push him beyond the limits of the track, or even close to taking both of them out. They had used banned engine modes to stay ahead of each other early in the 2014 season. It only escalated their rivalry that season, when the German out-braked himself in the final qualifying run of the Monaco GP and denied Hamilton pole. Their relationship has never been the same ever since.
Not on the best of terms
For someone who likes to do his talking on the track, Hamilton perhaps took that as a slight. In the strictest terms, qualifying is not racing, but an equal chance for both drivers to get the best starting position. Racing only comes thereafter, and Hamilton was denied that chance. It drew the battle lines, and explained their clash in Spa thereafter. The gloves were off, finally.
Whenever F1 has boasted of a constructor (like Mercedes) building bulletproof cars that are miles ahead of the competition, it has come down to intra-team rivalry to keep the championship alive. In the years preceding Mercedes’ domination, Red Bull were unable to provide this flavour – rather, Mark Webber was, since Vettel outdrove him for a majority of four successive years. Red Bull kept team orders out of their purview, and so did Mercedes, but there were more flashpoints in the latter scenario to contain.
This “backing up” accusation first occurred in the 2015 Chinese Grand Prix. Rosberg accused his teammate of driving him backwards into the other podium contenders, while Hamilton shrugged, saying it was not his problem to manage his teammate’s race.
In 2014 then, Hamilton won six of the last seven races to claim the title. In 2015, he claimed the title with three races to spare, beating Rosberg in Austin with a first-corner move that left the German incensed.
Where Rosberg succeeded
The cold shoulder in China, the short shrift given in Austin, would change Rosberg’s attitude as much as the fact that Hamilton easily beat him in successive years. This is the underlying point of 2016’s long drawn-out championship battle. Sure, Hamilton faced a lot of engine/mechanical troubles through the year, which could have altered the mathematical equation in his favour.
But, throughout the year, Rosberg denied Hamilton any let-up in terms of on-track competitiveness. He turned a corner mentally, putting himself in a zone where his teammate’s antics – fair or unfair – would not get to him.
Rosberg shortened his aim from the world championship to race-by-race emphasis instead, and in doing so, he stayed in the bubble he had created from himself. It was impermeable, and helped him focus, oblivious to the many troubles of Hamilton. They, like in 2015 at China, were not his problem.
In this light, the 2016 Singapore GP becomes a microcosm of the entire season. Remarkably enough, Mercedes went into this race as second, even third favourites behind Red Bull and Ferrari, after their troubles in 2015. The champion team that they are, solutions were found and applied. Hamilton though had a troublesome weekend, while Rosberg sped to pole.
During the long race, not satisfied by his position in the pecking order and watching Rosberg speed away to victory, Hamilton pushed for a different strategy and got it going. It triggered a chain reaction up the order, forcing Ferrari and Red Bull cars ahead of him to pit for fresher tyres. However, Ricciardo’s pit stop caught Mercedes unawares, and the window for Rosberg closed. On older tyres, thanks largely to his teammate’s progressive strategy, the Australian driver was now catching him at pace.
Rosberg drove an immaculate last segment of that race, and held off Ricciardo enough to seal his win. In this moment, his championship bid was not only formally confirmed, but assured. For, he came out as a stronger driver. No, not compared to his teammate, instead the comparison was to his previous self.
It is not to say that the Rosberg of 2014 or 2015 would have lost, but surely he would have flinched. Once the pit-stop window was closed, there was not a murmur from the German who got down to his job of keeping Ricciardo, in a much quicker car, behind.
That unflinching attitude was at its showcased best. And it was the single-most significant marker of his mental fortitude acquired for this season (perhaps for the future too), and wholly encapsulated why Rosberg finished a deserving first-time Formula One champion two months later in Abu Dhabi.