Smith: What a difference a year makes for Hamilton and Rosberg

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Following last year’s Chinese Grand Prix, I wrote a somewhat scathing column saying that unless Nico Rosberg changed his mindset, he had already lost the championship.

After just three races, he had suffered a trio of lifeless defeats to Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton, who looked to be at the peak of his powers.

What a difference a year makes.

Upon crossing the line to record his sixth consecutive Formula 1 victory in China, Rosberg took history onto his side in the early title race as well as a sizeable mathematical advantage.

In his charge for the 2014 title race, Rosberg’s lead stood at 29 points at its peak. It is already at 36 after just three races in 2016.

Hamilton has been nonchalant throughout Rosberg’s winning streak. He freely admitted at the backend of 2015 that he was distracted by his off-track interests, while his defeats in Australia and Bahrain were circumstantial. He didn’t seem to care.

But something changed on Sunday in China. Once again, Lewis may have stood little chance of taking the fight to Rosberg, yet he now seems more concerned about his title hopes. The fourth championship many assumed to be a formality might instead have to be another Hamilton comeback story.

“Definitely never felt the dark cloud I’ve had over me right now,” Hamilton said after the race.

“Of course, it’s a trying time. For sure, lots of different emotions and thoughts are going through my mind.

“As you see the season start the wrong way, you see a championship which your goals and your eyes are focused on move further away from you as you’re approaching it.”

With a 36 point deficit, even a run of five straight wins taking him up to the Austrian Grand Prix weekend in July might not be enough to give Hamilton the lead of the championship. It’s a bleak outlook.

Hamilton never does things the easy way though. His first two F1 title successes were both nail-biters, with his third glory in Austin last year with three races to spare being odd in the patchwork of his career. He is at his best when chasing, as tough as it may be for now.

And Hamilton’s ability to turn things around is not lost on Rosberg, who is feeling far from invincible despite being undefeated since the end of October.

“Quite on the contrary. My teammate is Lewis Hamilton, and he has been the benchmark for the past two years,” Rosberg told NBCSN after the race.

“The points gap, if you consider all the points that are still up for grabs this year, it’s like it’s nothing. It’s a couple of races difference. It will always be a tough battle against him.”

So what has changed in Nico’s head over the past 12 months?

For that answer, we have to go back to Austin. Much as his crushing psychological loss to Hamilton at the 2014 Hungarian Grand Prix flicked a switch in Rosberg’s mind and sent him into a downward spiral that aided his championship defeat, losing the title as he did in Austin last year woke the German out of his slumber.

Since then, Hamilton may have been off the boil and unlucky, but Rosberg has been simply flawless. Champion-esque, one may even hasten to say.

Hamilton can only push harder and do all he can to fight back in Sochi on May 1. The Briton remedied his biggest weakness from Australia and Bahrain, making a lightning start off the line. It was at Turn 2 where his race turned south after being hit by Felipe Nasr, leaving his car with damage for the remainder of the race.

There are positives to be taken, and Hamilton must keep the faith. He hasn’t been beaten by Rosberg per se – he’s been unlucky. Yet he cannot let this run bother his mindset.

Bahrain 2014. Canada 2014. Hungary 2014. Belgium 2014. Abu Dhabi 2014. China 2015. USA 2015. All of these races were major flashpoints in the Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry.

You can now add China 2016 to that list. It may have been a race where Rosberg eased to victory with little fuss, yet it is also where for the first time in almost two years where Hamilton looks mentally weaker than his teammate.

But write off Hamilton’s championship hopes at your peril.

Few drivers have displayed the kind of hunger, drive or – to take a soccer term – bouncebackability in the history of F1 that Hamilton has.

Now it is time for him to put all three together and get back into the championship chase.

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night / DB3 Inc.

On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.

Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)