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Belgian GP Paddock Notebook – Sunday

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There was I thinking that Friday had been pretty ‘chaotic’ as Marussia played flip-flop with its drivers. Compared to what we have seen on race day in Belgium, that was nothing.

It has been a quite remarkable day at the paddock. What started out as a disaster for Mercedes at Les Combes on lap two of the Belgian Grand Prix has now turned into a full blown civil war. Frankly, this latest fall-out between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg might just be irreparable.

Anyhow, let’s deal with the race winner first: congratulations to Daniel Ricciardo for claiming his third career F1 victory. Yet again, he was there to pick up the pieces when Mercedes faltered. The Australian’s win gives a good news story to an otherwise tenuous weekend.

Here’s the final round-up from the paddock at Spa-Francorchamps.

NEWS FROM THE PADDOCK

THOUGHTS FROM THE TRACK

What a day. As Rosberg extends his championship lead to 29 points, Mercedes stands on the brink of civil war – and it’s hard to see a way back now.

When Hamilton said after the Monaco Grand Prix that he and Rosberg were no longer friends, it was personal; it didn’t involve the team. It was soon patched up with a cute throwback picture on Twitter that made it all better.

This time around? There is no way back. Hamilton and Rosberg are now bitter rivals embroiled in a tight title fight, and boy is it shaping up to be a classic.

Let’s deal with the facts here. Firstly, Nico Rosberg hit Lewis Hamilton on lap two of the Belgian GP, ruining the Briton’s race. Rosberg went on to finish in second place, extending his lead at the top of the drivers’ standings to 29 points. His move was immediately condemned by the powers at Mercedes, but general paddock consensus was that it was a “racing incident”.

Then, a few hours after the race, Lewis Hamilton confirmed to the media that Rosberg had said he had the chance to pull out of the move and avoid the accident, but chose not to. This was then verified by the team’s management and communications department. Rosberg insists that he did nothing wrong, but frankly, it is impossible to lay blame with Hamilton here. Rosberg is 100% at fault. He was never going to find a way past around the outside of the corner. Vettel had tried the lap before, only to take to the run off area, just as Nico should have done.

This incident does put into doubt the assumption that his ‘mistake’ in qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix was indeed that: a mistake. Rosberg was asked in the press conference about the notion of his move today being deliberate; he brushed it off, why of course not. Now we know that it was – to some extent, which I’ll come to – it puts his character into question.

Another fact is that Rosberg did not go into this race planning to hit Hamilton. He went into it stewing over his defeat in Hungary, yes, but then he said on Thursday that he had “moved on”. Rosberg has traditionally been a very cool and collected character. Today, we saw a very different side to him, someone who was feeling the pressure of a fight for the world championship. Hamilton is winning the mind games here.

Nico therefore went into this race not planning to hit Hamilton, but he was not willing to be as subservient to the Briton as maybe he has been in the past. He was not willing to pull out of a move. A month ago, he would have gone on at Les Combes just like Vettel did. This time, he didn’t, and the consequences are clear for everyone to see.

It will be interesting to see how things go at Monza. Rosberg seemed to be the good guy in the past, but now that has changed. He is the villain in this case – will this play on his mind?

Hamilton may leave Spa with a huge points deficit to make up, but Rosberg has his reputation to save in two weeks’ time.

Hamilton not chasing number one status at Mercedes after Rosberg exit

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 25: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks in the Paddock during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 25, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton says he is not chasing number one driver status at Mercedes as the team begins its search for a replacement for Formula 1 World Champion Nico Rosberg.

Rosberg edged out Hamilton for the F1 drivers’ championship in Abu Dhabi last Sunday before sensationally announcing his immediate retirement from the sport five days later.

Mercedes has said it will take its time when looking for a replacement for Rosberg, with the majority of the F1 grid tied up contractually for 2017.

Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel have both been linked with the Mercedes drive in the wake of Rosberg’s departure, leading to questions about whether Hamilton would want another big-name star alongside him.

Mercedes has always stressed that it does not have a number one driver, and Hamilton said that he would not insist on that changing when his new teammate arrives.

“I’ve never been a driver to ever request that,” Hamilton said when asked about number one status.

“I know a lot of the other drivers Sebastian, Fernando make sure that’s in their contract.

“I’ve just always asked to have equal rights. As long as we’re treated fairly, it doesn’t really matter who’s alongside you.

“But of course, we’ve got great team bosses, who I’m sure will choose the right people to be representing the brand.”

Whoever replaces Rosberg will become Hamilton’s fifth teammate in F1, the Briton having previously worked with Alonso, Heikki Kovalainen and Jenson Button during his time at McLaren before joining Mercedes in 2013.

Rosberg: Hamilton’s late-season form ‘the best Lewis I’ve ever seen’

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo neads Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track  during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg believes that Lewis Hamilton produced some of the best performances of his career towards the end of the 2016 Formula 1 season when the Briton had nothing to lose in the championship fight.

Rosberg clinched his maiden F1 drivers’ championship by five points in Abu Dhabi last Sunday, defeating Hamilton for the first time during their time as teammates.

Rosberg closed out the season with four straight second place finishes, with Hamilton’s run of victories in the same period not being enough to catch up in the standings.

Speaking in a video produced by Mercedes after his championship win, Rosberg said that he felt the most pressure after his final win of the season in Japan, the result that meant he could wrap up the title without taking another victory.

“The changing moment was Suzuka for me, when all of a sudden I had the 33-point lead and that meant it was in my hands, and it’s mine to lose, because it was enough to do second-second-second and third,” Rosberg said.

“That’s when really the pressure started for me because it became real, the chance to win the championship and to beat Lewis. It was real.”

Rosberg was only assured of the title when he crossed the finish line in Abu Dhabi, with Hamilton going deliberately slow in a bid to back the German into the chasing pack.

“Abu Dhabi was intense. It was the most intense experience I’ve ever had in a race car,” Rosberg said.

“Even qualifying, the laps in qualifying, not easy really. And for sure it has an impact on your performance. It’s not possible that you do the same performance as if you’re in Lewis’ position where he has nothing to lose.”

Rosberg believes that the lack of pressure brought the very best out of Hamilton, as he closed out the campaign with four consecutive victories from pole position.

“That’s why he got the pole positions and why I was second in the last couple of races because he’s free, has no weight and nothing to lose,” Rosberg said.

“It was the best Lewis I’ve ever seen, the last few races, because not only was he completely free, but also the most determined and motivated ever, working as hard as ever.

“[It was] massively difficult to beat him in those circumstances.”

Rosberg announced on Friday that he would be retiring from racing with immediate effect, meaning we have likely seen the last of his rivalry with Hamilton in F1.

Lewis Hamilton escapes punishment for defying Mercedes team orders in Abu Dhabi

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP prepares for the race on the grid  during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton will face no punishment for defying team orders from Mercedes during the Formula 1 title decider in Abu Dhabi last weekend.

Hamilton took his fourth straight win and 10th of the season at the Yas Marina Circuit last Sunday, but fell five points short of Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the final drivers’ championship standings.

In a bid to make Rosberg lose places, Hamilton slowed the pack down in Abu Dhabi, causing concern on the Mercedes pit wall as Sebastian Vettel threatened to snatch victory away.

Hamilton ignored several calls from the Mercedes pit wall to pick up the pace, risking disciplinary action from the team after going against its orders.

However, Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda has confirmed that Hamilton will not be punished and that the team has moved on from the incident.

“There is no need to say anything to Lewis,” Lauda told The Mail on Sunday.

“We have no problem about how he raced in Abu Dhabi. We have drawn a line under it.”

Mercedes’ more pressing concern at the moment is finding a replacement for Rosberg after the German’s shock decision to retire from racing with immediate effect.

Hamilton’s contract with Mercedes runs for another two years, and without erstwhile rival Rosberg to battle against, is the early favorite for the championship in 2017.

Lauda claims half the F1 grid is chasing Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes seat

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 09: Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP Mercedes GP non-executive chairman Niki Lauda and Mercedes GP Executive Director Toto Wolff celebrate after winning the race and the constructors championship for 2016 during the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 9, 2016 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda says that “practically half of Formula 1” is chasing Nico Rosberg’s seat for the 2017 season after the World Champion’s sensational decision to retire on Friday.

Rosberg was crowned F1 drivers’ champion for the first time last weekend in Abu Dhabi, only to announce five days later that he would be retiring with immediate effect.

The decision stunned the F1 world, and gave the driver market for the 2017 season a late and unprecedented twist as speculation swirled over who would replace Rosberg at Mercedes.

Speaking to La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy, Lauda said that over half the F1 grid has enquired about Rosberg’s drive.

“Practically half of Formula 1 and maybe more,” Lauda said when asked about the interest in Mercedes’ free seat.

“I am constantly taking calls.”

Mercedes said following Rosberg’s announcement that it would take its time to decide on a replacement, with options including junior drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon, or more established racers that would need their contracts to be bought out.

Lauda hinted that Wehrlein and Ocon were not first choices for Mercedes, though, saying: “Hiring a youngster is a risk and we don’t know how strong he would be.”

Lauda also revealed that he thought Rosberg was playing a joke on him when he first found out about the news, not long before the formal announcement.

“I took it badly. I was not expecting it,” Lauda said.

“At first I didn’t believe him. ‘Nico,’ I told him, ‘Are you pulling my leg? Is it a joke?’

“But he, seriously, said it was all true. Truly incredible.”

The Mercedes seat is one of just four free on the F1 grid for 2017. Manor is yet to sign any drivers for next year, while Sauber has one vacancy remaining.