Byline: ADAM COOPER
CAN NICO ROSBERG GIVE his Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton a consistent challenge in 2016--and ensure that the Briton doesn't run away and clinch the world championship early again? That has to be the hope of Formula One fans worldwide after Hamilton had things his way for much of this season.
In 2014, the pair was evenly matched on speed, and indeed Rosberg won the overall battle in qualifying. The title fight went right down to the wire at the double-points Abu Dhabi finale, where Hamilton won as Rosberg coasted to the flag with a crippled car. The consensus was that Hamilton was a very deserving world champion, but had Rosberg ended up on top, it would not have been an entirely unjust outcome.
We expected more of the same in 2015. However, from the start of the year, Hamilton had the edge. Rosberg admitted that he'd turned his focus a bit more to preparing for Sundays, and that seemed to cost him in qualifying as Hamilton won the pole in 11 of the first 12 races. Nevertheless, Rosberg won in Monaco after a strategic mix-up for Hamilton, and he also triumphed in Spain and Austria.
That simply wasn't enough to stop Hamilton, who established his title momentum with a series of crushing victories. At times, he made Rosberg look like a supporting act, which was not the case last year, or indeed in 2013, when they were teammates for the first time. At one point, it appeared that Rosberg might even lose second place in the world championship to Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel.
However, in the last part of the year, Rosberg began to turn things around, and in some style. From Japan to Brazil, he took five poles in a row.
Converting them into wins proved difficult, however. In Japan, Hamilton edged him off the road on the first lap and he lost several places, and then in Russia, he retired early with a throttle problem. In the U.S., Hamilton again eased Rosberg wide on the first lap, but he recovered in style, only to run off the road in the closing laps and allow Hamilton past. That mistake clinched the title for Hamilton with three races left in the season.
Rosberg scored impressive wins in Mexico and Brazil. Had he shown that sort of form earlier in the year, we would have enjoyed a much more exciting battle for the title.
So why did Rosberg suddenly find qualifying speed--and subsequently the racing chops to stay ahead of the world champion? It's a question that nobody involved seems to have an answer for, and that includes Rosberg himself, Hamilton and the Mercedes team management.
Rosberg insists he was not doing anything different and that it's not a question of him being able to relax once the pressure of chasing the title was done.
"Unfortunately, I don't have an explanation for it," he said in Brazil. "What I do know is that I've been working on it. If I'm now faster in qualifying, then great, it seems that my work is starting to pay off. Because it was one of the big weaknesses, and definitely one of the reasons why Lewis won the championship this year, because that helped him a lot for sure, to be starting first all the time."
Some argue that Hamilton mentally took his foot off the gas, without even knowing it, having won his cherished third title. It's true that he may have been distracted by some extra PR work and celebratory partying, but then throughout this year, he's made a point of busying himself away from the track. And no way would he want to somehow devalue his championship by being beaten, even in races that mean virtually nothing at the end of the year.
"Somebody asked me if Lewis has lost it a bit now he's champion," said Mercedes technical boss Paddy Lowe. "Absolutely not. I think you take one race at a time. People don't look at the scoreboard, they come to an event that they want to win. Lewis will be pissed off more than anything that he lost."
The bottom line is that Rosberg (13 career wins) is a very good F1 driver and is hard working and savvy in the mold of countrymen Michael Schumacher and Vettel. Remarkably, only Stirling Moss has scored more Grands Prix wins (15) without winning a title.
Rosberg might not be as exceptional as Hamilton--who by now deserves to be ranked among the greats of all time--but he's certainly good enough to follow his father Keke (five career wins, 1982 champion) and be a world champion one day. However, to do that anytime soon, he will have to beat Hamilton, and that means getting everything right, every weekend. It didn't happen in 2015, but Rosberg's late-season run has given him good momentum heading into the winter. The rest is in his hands.
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