It’s 2014 all over again. Just when you may have been lulled into thinking that Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg had laid down their weapons and made peace, sparks flew in Shanghai at the Chinese Grand Prix.
Although the cause of this latest spat was far less sinister than ignoring team orders or hitting your teammate, as we saw in Hungary and Belgium last year, it has given us a fascinating insight into how the fight for this year’s championship may play out.
And at this rate, Hamilton has it already won. Rosberg looks lost.
This ‘incident’ – if you can call it that – played out following the first round of pit stops in China. After spending much of the first stint trying to get closer to Hamilton in the lead and destroying his tires in the process, Rosberg radioed Mercedes to request that the Briton be told to speed up.
“Lewis is driving very slowly, so get him to speed up!” Rosberg cried. “If I go closer, I’ll destroy my tires.” With Sebastian Vettel looming large in his mirrors less than two seconds away, the German was keen for Mercedes to break away from the chasing Ferraris.
Mercedes followed Rosberg’s orders, asking Hamilton to drop his pace down to a 1:43.6 seconds per lap. The Briton did exactly that. From the time of the request, the Briton posted a 1:43.9, 43.7, 43.6, 43.5, 43.7, 43.6, 43.2 and 43.0 before Rosberg was brought into the pits, doing exactly as he was told. Hamilton then turned up the wick further, finding eight-tenths of a second to extend his lead by going three laps longer before stopping and giving himself a six second advantage at the front upon emerging from the pits.
Come the end of the race, Rosberg had dropped Vettel, securing a one-two for Mercedes and capping off a great weekend for the team. However, he was fuming.
After the race, Rosberg accused Hamilton of deliberately backing him up into Vettel, giving the Ferrari driver a chance of getting ahead and splitting the Silver Arrows.
“You were just thinking about yourself with the pace in front, and necessarily that was compromising my race,” Rosberg told Hamilton in the post-race press conference.
“It was unnecessarily close with Sebastian as a result, and also it cost me a lot of race time as a result because I had to cover him and then my tires died at the end of the race because my stint was just so much longer.
“So I’m unhappy about that, of course, today. Other than that, not much to say.”
Hamilton appeared bemused. He smirked before defending his driving, saying he was simply conserving his tires and ensuring that he got to the end of the race on the planned strategy.
“It’s not my job to look after Nico’s race,” Hamilton said. “My job is to manage the car and bring the car home as healthy and as fast as possible – and that’s what I did.
“I didn’t do anything intentionally to slow any of the cars up. I just was focussing on myself. If Nico wanted to get by he could have tried but he didn’t.”
Once again, Lewis has mentally outfoxed Nico. And he has been doing so ever since the Hungarian Grand Prix back in July.
Before that race, Rosberg was the man to beat. Hamilton had been unlucky, but it was Rosberg who looked cool, calm and confident. After winning his home race in Germany with relative ease, he appeared to be on top of the world. I praised his unflappable nature after the race, only for another journalist to say that “it could be his undoing”.
I tipped Rosberg for the title in 2014. It wasn’t because I thought of him as the better driver, but I believed that Lewis would get too wrapped up in things and essentially beat himself. Little did I realize that it would in fact be Rosberg who hit the self-destruct button.
In Hungary last year, Rosberg requested to be let past Hamilton, given that he was on the option tire and was therefore quicker. Mercedes told Hamilton to move over, only for the Briton to say “if he gets close enough, he can pass”. Rosberg couldn’t, though, and would eventually finish the race narrowly behind his teammate.
Nico said little after the race. Instead, he went away for the summer break and stewed over the incident before coming to Spa for the Belgian Grand Prix. In the pre-race press conference, he seemed on edge; he looked almost upset. It then all boiled over on lap two of the race when he hit Hamilton, giving him a puncture and ruining his race.
Lewis then played the psychological game perfectly. He met with the media and was the man to reveal that Rosberg had said he had done it on purpose. It wasn’t the whole story, but now, Rosberg was the villain. It also raised doubts about his ‘mistake’ during qualifying at Monaco, when he brought out yellow flags when on provisional pole by missing the corner at Mirabeau, denying Hamilton a chance to better his time.
The affair at Spa broke Rosberg. In Italy, he choked when in the lead, giving the win to Hamilton. Further mistakes followed in Japan, Russia and the United States, with his only win in the second half of the season coming at the Brazilian Grand prix after Hamilton pushed too hard and spun on an in-lap.
All seemed to have been patched up between the pair after Abu Dhabi though. Hamilton was world champion, and Rosberg was one of the first to go and congratulate him. Peace had been restored at Mercedes – or so it appeared on the surface.
But it was never true. Rosberg has now lost to Hamilton in nine of the last ten races, and finally snapped in China. His argument was one that held very little water. So what if Lewis did back him up? He didn’t get close enough to make a pass, and never looked capable of winning the race. He lost fair and square.
This is a one-sided spat. Rosberg, once again, is the aggressor. He cannot deal with the fact that, no matter what he has tried so far this year, Hamilton has beaten him every single time. Their qualifying and race head-to-head records in 2015 both read 3-0 in favor of the Briton, and the score since Hungary is 9-1 to Hamilton.
So where can he go from here? Firstly, Rosberg must not rise to what Hamilton is doing. He has provoked Rosberg by simply being better on track. If Rosberg had answered this by dominating the upcoming race weekend in Bahrain, then it would have given Hamilton something to think about. Instead, he snapped.
Injustice does happen in sport. There are days when the better driver loses, or when one man gets hard-done by. Rosberg needs to realize that stamping his feet because he didn’t win the race is counter-productive.
Why would Hamilton care about his title rival’s race anyway? Why would he put his own strategy at risk to aid that of his teammate? And when did we last have a world champion who seriously cared about how the car on the other side of the garage did?
If Rosberg had finished third behind Vettel, he would have a legitimate argument. To claim that Hamilton hurt the team performance when it scored a one-two finish is bizarre. He has only come out of the race weekend worse off as a result of his comments.
Ever since Hungary last year, Hamilton has Rosberg beaten in the mind-games. Unless Nico can get around his paranoid complex and start to do his talking on the track, this championship is already over.