Mercedes' dynamic duo

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Author: Edd Straw
Date: Mar. 13, 2014
From: Autosport(Vol. 215, Issue 11)
Publisher: Haymarket Media Group
Document Type: Cover story
Length: 4,065 words

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They enter the 2014 Formula 1 season as overwhelming favourites, but what do Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg really think of their chances? In this exclusive interview, they reveal one or two home truths to EDD STRAW

Last year, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg ended the season separated by just 18 points. That's less than a point's difference on average per grand prix between the old karting team-mates in their first season together at Mercedes. The pair head into the 2014 as favourites for the world championship, so how do you choose between them?

The contrast between the artist and the artisan has long been drawn between grand prix drivers. In the 1960s, Jim Clark was the so-called 'natural' talent and Graham Hill the one who used diligence and determination to make up the deficit. Both won two world titles. Later, Alain Prost was the professor to Ayrton Senna's maestro. Between them, they won seven championships. Today, Hamilton and Rosberg are cast in similar terms, with the Briton as the gloriously 'pure' driver and the German working hard to compensate for his.

Both characterisations are very broad brushstrokes, designed to be a shorthand rather than a final judgement on their respective abilities. Rosberg is the artisan, Hamilton the artist. But it is a false dichotomy to conclude that therefore this means Rosberg is slow or Hamilton is stupid. Far from it. At the elite level of any professional sport, the differences between the athletes are tiny.

So, it is essential to play to your strengths. Rosberg always had an engineering mindset, and came close to studying for an engineering degree before racing got in the way. He has always been a fast driver but, once you get to the top level, even if you give away a tenth of a second that's enough to make the difference. It's in his character to immerse himself in the detail of the car and it helps to make him a formidable competitor.

As for Hamilton, he has always been seriously fast, that's why McLaren signed him all those years ago. But while sheer speed can get you so far in motorsport, it doesn't get you to the top and it must be fused with application and understanding of the car. McLaren set stunningly high standards for Hamilton, who had to win at every level, so he had to work incredibly hard even to earn his place in F1.

In a way, he's exactly the driver fans want to see, someone who earned his opportunities through success. His McLaren silver spoon could have been withdrawn at the drop of a hat and he had plenty of opportunities to fall off the ladder, but he always fought his way through. He has 22 grand prix wins to his name across a variety of cars and regulations. During the Pirelli era, he's also made significant progress in terms of dealing with the demands of fuel and tyre management. He's far from one-dimensional and the idea he hops out of the car after a session and is unwilling to put in the hard graft is misleading, even though the depths he goes to might not match Rosberg. The bottom line is that he's one of the very best.

While Rosberg and Hamilton do have different biases in their approaches, their end results were remarkably similar last year. The question in 2014 is whether the shift in regulations to an ever-more engineering-led approach will move the dial a little in favour of Rosberg? Or will Hamilton, as he has always done, adapt to these new challenges? Even those in the team don't really know who will thrive. And that's what makes this intra-team rivalry more fascinating even than Fernando Alonso versus Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari.

So what better way to get a deeper understanding of the way Hamilton and Rosberg work than asking them about the challenges of F1 in 2014 and their own strengths.

There are massive changes in Formula 1 this year. From what you have seen in testing, what do you make of this new kind of racing?

Lewis Hamilton: It's even more technical than it has been in the past. But it's a step further forward into the future.

Nico Rosberg: It's a very exciting time in the sport and I enjoy it. After four years of Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel dominance, change is a great thing for the sport, a great thing for everybody involved, a new challenge. It's refreshing even for me as a driver. I'm excited about the current period because there are so many new things; the technology, progressing with it, optimising it. It's about possibilities. At the moment, as a driver I can have so much influence on where it is going because they need the driver input. I'm the one driving the car out there and I'm the only one who can tell them where the main problems are. So it's an extremely interesting time. With the V8s, you were at the limit and you could play around a little bit here and there and that's it. But now everything is open and you can just do whatever you want. So I find it a cool challenge.

People talk a lot about the change in demands on drivers. Is this as significant as some claim?

LH: It's huge. People watching will never ever know [how demanding it is], not just for the driver but also what the team does in the garage and what the factory does. I'm pretty sure that at least 70 per cent of those who watch it on TV don't realise that all of the components on the car are built by the team, or the trials and tribulations you go through in testing, the failures and improvements. This year, as a driver, it has taken a good step up in terms of the technical side for us to understand. But it's cool. As drivers, we grow and we get stronger mentally each year to be able to do so.

NR: Last year, there was enough technology that I could use for my benefit inside and outside the car and now there are just a few variables that have come in like the ERS, how it deploys, where it deploys. A big one is also the brake-by-wire.

It's all electronic now and you can play around so much that it's such a big part of the balance and the handling of the car and what it does under braking. Braking is now all the way to mid-corner so it's like half of every corner that you are taking is braking and you can have such a big influence on the balance with the brake-by-wire. You can shape it as you want. In the first part of braking, when you are straight ahead you can have a lot of rear brakes, then the middle part you can shape it the other way. Then you have different corners which require different things. It's so powerful, so that's a new area where you can play around more than before. I like the challenge and the complications. As to whether it suits me, we will see from the results. Also, tyres, we were expecting them to be rock solid one-stop tyres but actually it's quite the contrary: it's a similar story to last year with a lot of tyre degradation. That's another challenge that we didn't see coming.

How much of an impact does the 100kg-perrace fuel limit have and do you enjoy that challenge? Or is it frustrating not to be able to drive at 100 per cent?

LH: "Years ago, in 2007 and 2008, you could be pretty much flat out the whole time because they were flat-out stints. You might have to do the smallest amount of lift and coast to save fuel, but that was cool back then. Now it's a lot more strategic from a team's and driver's point of view. In the past it was 'the driver drives and the team does the strategy' but now it's team and driver. Lift and coast is going to be a huge player this year. And also, how you manage your fuel, how you use it because in the 70 laps you have, you could use it more in 10 laps flat out and then save it for five laps or 20 laps and use it later. Or use it in the first 20 laps, push and then save it for the rest, or save it off the start. It can be moved around and you have to decide how you do that with the team."

NR: It's more extreme but it's not completely new. Fuel has always been a big thing, especially in recent years with the 150kg start fuel. We have always been trying to optimise fuel because if you saved a little bit you could leave the grid with 3kg less fuel. And 3kg was one-and-a-half or two-tenths per lap or something crazy like that. So it's not a completely new world, it's just more extreme and it's going to have an impact on racing even more than it used to in the past. It's something that needs a lot of attention this year.

What does fuel-saving actually involve? Obviously it's about more than simply driving slowly, as some believe ...

LH: As a driver you have to short-shift the gears quite often and it's lifting several metres before the braking zone. It's being less aggressive with the throttle, riding the throttle less, coasting into a lot of places instead of having to use the fuel. That's generally all we can do and then it's just managing the switches.

NR: One of the most efficient ways of saving fuel is lifting off the throttle 50 metres before you get to the braking point for the corner. By coasting for that short period of time, you hardly lose any laptime. But at the same time, because it's the period with the highest wind resistance the fuel consumption [when flat out] is massive in that point because the resistance is so big.

You are saving fuel by lifting off the throttle but you're not losing laptime, so that's the most efficient way. That's one of the key things that I need to play around with.

Lewis, you are often portrayed as an incredibly fast driver but not as technically-minded as someone like Nico. Is that fair?

LH: Firstly, anyone from the outside has never actually sat in a debrief with me or in the garage or heard how I set up my car, or how Nico or any of the other drivers do, so it's almost impossible to say one does it better than the other. But naturally every driver does it differently and every driver uses more time for one thing than he does another thing. What's most important is how those two drivers come together and push the team forward using constructive criticism, getting the results, using that enthusiasm and energy to push the team forward.

But do people underestimate your strategic and technical skills? You adapted well to tyre management in recent years so does that get overlooked?

LH: I don't really know. I don't read what people are writing or take any notice of it. If people talk about it it's OK--people will say what they are going to say. As long as I know what I do, as long as I'm sitting with my engineers studying data to see how I can improve the car. I never thought that I would have such a good understanding of my car. If only people knew what I knew, I think they would be surprised. The results that I have had have never, ever, just come from pure driving, they have always been about me setting my car up. No-one sets the car up for me. No-one has ever set my car up for me in my whole F1 career. They do simulations and they come up with a baseline set-up but I can do one lap and tell them where it's wrong and come in. They might send me out after five laps and I'll come in every two and say we've got to change this, change that.

Nico, you're regarded as an intelligent driver, an 'engineering' driver, but not always seen as the absolute fastest over a single lap. Is that a fair characterisation?

NR: I don't know. I haven't really paid attention to how people see me--I'm focused on my own thing. I could go against you and say that my team-mate is renowned as one of the fastest and it was only 11-8 [to him] in qualifying last year, so that's the only thing I could say against that. Then the rest is up to you.

Following the huge changes in F1 for this year there's been a lot of talk about its direction.

If you had a clean sheet of paper to say what F1 should be, what would it be?

LH: If I was to talk about it, it would all be bull. What difference does it make because it's not going to happen. I'm happy with the way it is.

I'm enjoying driving, I love F1 because it changes every year. It's a challenge for me every year with my team to put the car together to get it to be as quick as it can be and to get myself in the right shape, learn the changes, learn the tyres. I like doing that every year.

NR: F1 should be about the best race drivers battling it out among each other in the most technologically advanced cars in the world. That should be F1. And that's what it seems to be this year. The only downside to that is that sometimes the best drivers don't battle each other because we are so dependent on our teams. And again this year it seems that the teams play a bigger role than ever before.

You and Mercedes go into the season-opening Australian Grand Prix as favourites. How does that feel?

LH: I don't think it really changes things. Within the team, it's positive to know that we don't have this negative pressure that some teams have about not making it [on performance] by race one. So we don't have that dragging us back or stressing us out. Now we can put all of our focus on getting these results and doing it well.

The guys have worked so hard and now we are carrying the momentum that we had last year, which is a real positive.

NR: That's the opinion of other people but I'm fully in the moment with my team, extracting the maximum from what we have in testing. That's where my focus is. So the opinion of other people doesn't occupy much of my capacity! So how does it feel? We have a great team spirit, that's what I feel. I feel how far we have come as a team and the momentum that we have as a team of moving on our way to becoming the best in the sport. I believe in this possibility. That's what I feel. There's an optimism. I'm not saying that for Melbourne, but soon.

The battle between you and your team-mate is one of the most interesting as you are two established, experienced drivers. How do you go about beating the other?

LH: It's very difficult in F1 noawadays to have an edge on someone and it has probably been the same for quite some time. You get in the car, you go and do a lap. It's a fantastic lap. Your teammate does a lap and it's not so good and then he compares that lap through data on the screen or on a printout and can say, 'shoot, that guy is braking five metres later than me in Turn 1, or he's on the power earlier than me or he's using a different gear to me'. Any advantage through your skill that you bring to the table is immediately taken away, or inherited. It's the same with all drivers. It's the same with Nico. He'll go out and go faster and I'll see he's using third instead of second gear, so I'll do the same and I'll find that time. So it's a constant evolution. The most skilful driver, I would assume, is one who is able to adapt to that most quickly, to really get his car to the place where he wants to in the short amount of time we have. So then it becomes more technical than just driving. Then when you drive you have to get that extra five per cent.

NR: It's tough. It's a difficult subject. You have the one side that you are a team and you are driving to win the constructors' championship for the team because that is where the money is. And that's what the team is in the sport for, to win the constructors' championship. But at the same time you want to race each other and beat each other and that's what the fans want to see--racing. There's always going to be that compromise because there are teams and then there are drivers in the team fighting it out. It's always difficult, especially if you are fighting for race wins, that's where it gets difficult. We are so competitive, massively competitive. The faster our car gets the more difficult it will become.

Sebastian Vettel is struggling in the Red Bull and even though the car fundamentally looks good, it will start the season on the back foot. You've started seasons in bad cars. What's it like in that situation?

LH: Sebastian has a great car and if he had our engine, they would be very hard to beat. But who knows? Maybe Renault will flick a switch and they will be on it suddenly in the first race.

Maybe they are fooling us? Who knows what's going on. But when you are in a team and you've had success, just constant praise from people, positive races for a year, two years, especially for Sebastian after so many years, to then have a year where you're not fighting at the top and you're not having good things said about yourself, generally that is an opportunity for people to talk you or the team down. So you can easily be drawn to the negativity. But they are a world championship-winning team. And the other teams are doing it, McLaren are bouncing back this year, they are on it and having a positive year so far. That's what every team does, they just bounce back.

NR: For me, it was a steady progression [up the grid] so it's probably tougher for someone like Sebastian now. If he starts the season on the back foot, which we don't know but certainly there is the possibility that will happen given the way Red Bull's testing has gone, that could be tough for him because you are so used to winning and everything. To suddenly not have the machinery to do it is surely tough for a driver.

For me, I got in and there was a steady progress going up. But I'm just motivated by the moment, wherever my car is. I prefer having a great car, that makes it even more enjoyable, but even having a mediocre car, the challenge of getting the most out of it and doing a great race with what I have is always there and that's where I take my motivation from.

ROSBERG IT'S BEEN A HARD SLOG TO THE TOP IN F1

It's been a long hard slog to the top for Nlco Rosberg. Still only 28, he will start hls 150th grand prix this season and his journey has gone from driver who flattered to deceive by setting fastest lap and scoring points on his debut to many people's tip for 2014 world title glory. While Williams was only very sporadically competitive during Rosberg's four seasons there, serious doubts did arise in the team about his ability to nail it when it mattered.

At the 2009 Hungarian GP, for example, Williams considered a punt for pole position with Rosberg on a light fuel load. But his scrappy lap to set 10th fastest time in Q2 made them think again for fear of a mistake leaving him down the grid. The raw material was there, but he wasn't seen as a driver to rely on. He proved that again in Singapore when he had the car to win and was hassling Lewis Hamilton, only to run wide over the white line at pit exit and incur a penalty.

The move from Williams to Mercedes, where Rosberg benefitted from the tutelage of Ross Brawn, and he could watch Michael Schumacher at work, was key. Rosberg started to become more convincing. He dialled out some of the softness in wheel-to-wheel battle from his game and started to win the odd race. Even when Hamilton seemed to take the initiative within Mercedes mid-season last year after settling in, Rosberg managed to fight back in the closing stages of the campaign.

This is what is so impressive about Rosberg. Just when he seems to have plateaued, he finds a way to rise further. This is not a case of a driver who was always a racewinner but hobbled by mediocre machinery. He has constantly evolved.

"I like to question myself and question the norm to get that next step," says Rosberg. "Because it's only by re-evaluating that you're going to be able to see where you can improve.

"It's something that I try to do at all times, really question what I can do better as a person to continually develop. Not just in racing, everywhere. That's my approach."

HAMILTON SECOND TITLE A LONG TIME COMING

Had you told anyone on that November afternoon at Interlagos in 2008 when Lewis Hamilton secured the world championship that he would go through the following five seasons without even breaking into the top three in the points, you would have been laughed out of Sao Paulo. Yet that is exactly what has happened.

It's far from all Hamilton's fault. In 2009, McLaren started the season dreadfully and the following year he was putting together a superb run only for the team to slip back late on. The 2011 campaign was his worst season, when a litany of cack-handed mistakes betrayed the fact that off-track issues were affecting him, as he confirmed late in the season. But even then he drove superbly at times and won three races. In 2012 he drove well enough to be champion, but other people's blunders (mostly McLaren's) cost him four wins, while 2013 was all about settling in at Mercedes. At 29, he goes into 2014 seemingly with everything he needs to win the title.

His decision to join Mercedes was all about two things. Forget about the money, that's a red herring, Hamilton desperately needed to get out of McLaren and have a fresh start. But the other big selling point was that Mercedes was, on paper, best equipped to take on the challenges of 2014. Last year was a year of transition, but one that, by his own admission, exceeded expectations both in terms of how well he settled in and how well the team evolved.

"Definitely," he said when asked if the success of 2013 was a bonus. "And also the progression through the year. In previous years, it looked like Mercedes would come to a halt while everyone kept developing. But to see the developments kept coming is a really good step.

"I thought [2013] would be a foundation-building year, but I didn't realise that the foundation would be so good."

For all his speed, there were a few negatives. By drifting over on Valtteri Bottas's lapped Williams at Interlagos, he ruined his own race and earned a penalty, showing the potential for needless errors remains. There were also a few times when he frustrated the team with his reaction, particular to tyre management issues, over the radio. But overall, the good far outweighed the bad.

If he can build on the work already done during the winter, Hamilton's long wait for a second world title could well be about to end.


HAMILTON versus ROSBERG 2013

                       HAMILTON      ROSBERG

RACES                     19           19
WINS                      1            2
POLES                     5            3
PODIUMS                   5            4
QUALIFYING RECORD         11           8
POINTS                    189          171
FASTEST LAPS              1
RETIREMENTS               1            3

Note: Table made from bar graph.

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