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.