Pole gave Rosberg a psychological boost, but would defeat in Spain cripple his title hopes?

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MONTMELO – When Nico Rosberg pulled into parc ferme following qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix on Saturday, a huge amount of pressure had been lifted from off his shoulders.

The German driver dominated qualifying at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on Saturday, beating teammate and title rival Lewis Hamilton by three-tenths of a second and posting two laps that would have been good enough for P1. For the first time in 2015, Hamilton had been second best.

Rosberg’s performance acted as a reminder of the driver that we saw throughout 2014. Although his race pace may have been lacking in a number of straight fights with Hamilton, he usually had the upper hand in qualifying, claiming 11 poles in total. Arguably, without his good Saturday form, the title would have been less of a close-run thing.

It was Rosberg’s biggest strength, which made his poor qualifying at the start of the 2015 season all the more surprising. The first four races saw Hamilton start on pole each time as Rosberg struggled to find his feet. In Bahrain, he failed to get into the right rhythm in Q2, leaving him uneasy in Q3 and ultimately six-tenths off the pace in third place.

Rosberg’s response on Saturday in Spain was an impressive one though, and the enormity of the result was not lost on the German.

“It’s important for tomorrow’s race because it’s better to start first than second,” Rosberg said. “Psychologically, yeah, it’s good. Feels great. I’m happy, so it’s good for tomorrow.”

If this is such a psychological step forwards for Rosberg, what would be the impact of a defeat on Saturday though?

Rosberg’s frustration came to a head in China when he accused Hamilton of not being a team player and deliberately backing him into Sebastian Vettel in third place during the race. However, his real gripe was not that Hamilton had done so, but that the Briton was even in the position to do it. Rosberg was helpless to stop his teammate from playing the game that way.

It is for this reason that Rosberg needs a strong start from pole position on Sunday. He must hold on to the lead in the opening stages of the race so he can then try to play Hamilton at his own game. That said, Mercedes may be somewhat wary of a repeat given the possibility of either two or three stops, thus allowing Ferrari to try and spring a surprise just as it did in Malaysia.

Although losing from pole would be a big blow to Rosberg, he already appears to have turned a corner. After China, he had to change his approach, and we saw that in Bahrain as he fought past Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen during the race. He may have lost out to the Finn at the end, but Rosberg had made an impression.

All champions have their off weekends, and this might be the case with Hamilton in Spain. It is now up to Rosberg to take full advantage of this and bring himself back in the title hunt.

Defeat would by no means cripple his title chances, but in the psychological battle, it would be a blow to lose to Lewis even when the Briton is not at the peak of his powers. He has to capitalize on the opportunity that has been presented to him today..

The Spanish Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7:30am ET on Sunday.

IndyCar Power Rankings: Pato O’Ward moves to the top entering Texas Motor Speedway

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The NBC Sports IndyCar power rankings naturally were as jumbled as the action on the streets of St. Petersburg after a chaotic opener to the 2023 season.

Pato O’Ward, who finished second because of an engine blip that cost him the lead with a few laps remaining, moves into the top spot ahead of St. Pete winner Marcus Ericsson and Alexander Rossi, who finished fourth in his Arrow McLaren debut. Scott Dixon and St. Pete pole-sitter Romain Grosjean (who led 31 laps) rounded out the top five.

St. Pete pole-sitter Romain Grosjean (who started first at St. Pete after capturing his second career pole position) Callum Ilott (a career-best fifth) and Graham Rahal entered the power rankings entering the season’s second race.

Three drivers fell out of the preseason top 10 after the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – including previously top-ranked Josef Newgarden, who finished 17th after qualifying 14th.

Heading into Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, here’s NBC Sports’ assessment of the current top 10 drivers through the first of 17 races this year (with previous preseason rankings in parenthesis):


NBC Sports’ IndyCar Power Rankings

1. Pato O’Ward (5) – If not for the dreaded “plenum event” in the No. 5 Chevrolet, the Arrow McLaren driver is opening the season with a victory capping a strong race weekend.

2. Marcus Ericsson (7) – He might be the most opportunistic driver in IndyCar, but that’s because the 2022 Indy 500 winner has become one of the series’ fastest and most consistent stars.

3. Alexander Rossi (10) – He overcame a frustrating Friday and mediocre qualifying to open his Arrow McLaren career with the sort of hard-earned top five missing in his last years at Andretti.

4. Scott Dixon (3) – Put aside his opening-lap skirmish with former teammate Felix Rosenqvist, and it was a typically stealthily good result for the six-time champion.

5. Romain Grosjean (NR) – The St. Petersburg pole-sitter consistently was fastest on the streets of St. Petersburg over the course of the race weekend, which he couldn’t say once last year.

6. Scott McLaughlin (6) – Easily the best of the Team Penske drivers before his crash with Grosjean, McLaughlin drove like a legitimate 2023 championship contender.

7. Callum Ilott (NR) – A quietly impressive top five for the confident Brit in Juncos Hollinger Racing’s first race as a two-car team. Texas will be a big oval litmus test.

8. Graham Rahal (NR) – Sixth at St. Pete, Rahal still has the goods on street courses, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan remains headed in the right direction.

9. Alex Palou (4) – He seemed a step behind Ericsson and Dixon in the race after just missing the Fast Six in qualifying, but this was a solid start for Palou.

10. Will Power (2) – An uncharacteristic mistake that crashed Colton Herta put a blemish on the type of steady weekend that helped him win the 2022 title.

Falling out (last week): Josef Newgarden (1), Colton Herta (8), Christian Lundgaard (9)