Formula One has a new favourite for the world championship. As Nico Rosberg swept over the line to win his third race of the season at Sunday’s Austrian Grands Prix, he opened up a lead of 29 points. 2014 has taught us many things so far. But the fact that Rosberg has the ability to blossom into a potential world champion has caught many by surprise.
Rosberg has never been seen as a star. He has had to work hard for his place at the front of the grid and even harder to be considered in the same league as Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso. Many will say he still isn’t, and with some justification. The former Williams driver has never been in a world championship fight. He only has six wins to his name and he lacks the superstar presence of others.
It is true that a lot of that can be put down to reliability issues. In Australia, Hamilton’s car broke and cost him a possible win. While in Canada, both Mercedes suffered mechanical problems but only Hamilton’s failed. Rosberg has, so far, finished every race either 1st or 2nd.
However, look a little deeper and you’ll see some added context. In Canada, Rosberg drove around the problems. He wrestled the car to second in what was one of the drives of the season. Hamilton, who has been accused of having tactical deficiencies, retired. He failed to keep his car going, like his team-mate.
So far, Rosberg has been smart. Over 19 races, mental strength is vital. Especially in a world championship fight between two drivers who drive the same car. Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher, the three men who have dominated the sport for the past 15 years, are some of the most resilient drivers to have ever raced. Being their team-mate was a chore. Buried under relentless pressure were Felipe Massa, Mark Webber and Rubens Barrichello.
Hamilton’s mentality cannot be put into the same category as those greats. Getting under his skin is essential and, more importantly, possible. In Monaco he said they were “no longer friends” after Rosberg’s suspicious qualifying mistake. He was riled. In Canada, he retired after naively chasing the lead. He was frustrated. And in Austria, after falling 22 points behind, he made two big errors in qualifying that probably cost him victory. He cracked under pressure.
By gently leaning on his mind, Rosberg is testing him and seeing how Hamilton responds. This is phase one. As the season progresses, the pressure will increase. 2014 has not gone as predicted. Rosberg has not bowed down to his team-mate. He has stood up and challenged him. And so far, beaten him.
However, Hamilton is a driver of such skill and talent that he will reel his team-mate in. That gap of 29 points will shrink and when Lewis gets on a roll, he is very hard to stop. Of the eight races so far, Rosberg can only claim to have been the faster driver in Bahrain and Monaco. Hamilton has hounded him home in each race.
Hamilton has the ability to repeat his run of four consecutive race wins earlier in the season. It is debatable whether Rosberg can. A driver who possesses such genius behind the wheel cannot be tamed for long. Next week at Silverstone is the perfect place for Hamilton to start his second come back of the season. He loves his home race and thrives there. Victory is a must.
But the cracks are already there. Rosberg has already halted the charge once. If he continues to be smart, fast and consistent, it will take a mighty effort from Hamilton to stop him. The decisive fight of 2014 may not be on the track, but in Lewis Hamilton’s mind.
On the track, Hamilton is generally faster although Rosberg has shown that the gap is marginal. In the mind, Rosberg is stronger. And that is what could be decisive.
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