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From Capgate to champion-in-waiting: Back at COTA, what’s changed for Nico Rosberg?

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Last year’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas offered one of the weirder weekends in Formula 1’s recent history.

After torrential rain washed out much of Friday and Saturday, the race that followed on Sunday was a classic, with Lewis Hamilton emerging victorious ahead of Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg.

Rosberg had been leading the race with 10 laps to go, only for a mistake in the final sector – allegedly the result of a gust of wind – to send him wide and allow Hamilton past.

It proved a decisive change of position. With victory, Hamilton was able to move into an unassailable lead in the drivers’ championship, sparking jubilant celebrations from the Briton in the pit lane having clinched a third world title.

Before heading out on the podium, Hamilton and Rosberg found themselves together in the cool-down room where they prepared for the ceremony. Rosberg sat in a white armchair, contemplating his title defeat, when Hamilton tossed him his second place finisher cap that had to be worn on the podium. Rosberg threw it straight back.

And so ‘Capgate’ was born.

The race and resulting ‘incident’ acted as an apt microcosm of the 2015 season and the championship battle between Hamilton and Rosberg. Hamilton had simply been one step ahead throughout the season, while Rosberg had been error-prone when the pressure mounted. COTA was the strongest example of that.

Twelve months later, things are very, very different. Rosberg arrives in Austin not as a championship outsider, but as the favorite: 33 points ahead of Hamilton, nine wins under his belt – this is not the same Nico Rosberg that wilted in the wind in Austin last year.

The foundations for Rosberg’s title bid were laid towards the back-end of last year. After seeing Hamilton wrap up the title at COTA, Rosberg went on a neat run of three straight victories in Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi to close out the season. While they were meaningless in terms of the championship, they acted as a prelude to 2016.

Hamilton was off the boil in the final races, certainly. He was enjoying his championship success and celebrity profile, which – while not wrecking his on-track form – meant he didn’t quite have the edge to match Rosberg.

Questions concerning Hamilton’s focus have been rife throughout his career, given his off-track interests. For the most part, they are misplaced. He has repeatedly proven he can prevail over his rivals while still enjoying his life away from F1.

But the debacle surrounding his Snapchat shenanigans over the Japanese Grand Prix and the hype surrounding it had the feeling of something slightly different. It was a fire that Hamilton didn’t need to be fighting or concerning himself with; yet he did. It was the big talking point of the weekend. Rosberg just kept his head down and took a clinical, classy victory at Suzuka.

Suzuka, Singapore, Monza and Baku are the races that Hamilton will look back on and say ‘that’s where the championship was lost’. He has suffered more than his fair share of misfortune this year, but the swing to Rosberg has not been wholly the result of those setbacks. Rosberg would be a deserving champion.

Perhaps the biggest change for Rosberg in 2016 is that he no longer appears to dwell on issues or battles that may have been ‘slow burners’ last year. The collapse of his title bid in 2014 stemmed from Hamilton’s antics in Hungary that year, while even as early as China in 2015, he looked to be bowing to the pressure of his teammate.

This year, Rosberg has remained cool, calculated, and icy – his Finnish heritage shining through. Even after his clash with Hamilton in Austria and his miserable displays in Monaco and Germany, Rosberg brushed it off and moved on. His focus has always been on a race-by-race basis, preventing him from stewing over poor performances or on-track incidents.

It has, however, resulted in a somewhat repetitive rhetoric. At each race, Rosberg has re-affirmed that he is not thinking about the championship; that he is taking things one race at a time; that he’s 100% focused on winning (what else would he be doing!?).

Rosberg was asked on Thursday in Austin what he was thinking about, if not the championship.

“An awesome race weekend in Austin GP… all I’m thinking about is Austin GP weekend,” he asserted.

It’s a mundane answer. Observers want to see Rosberg showing more heart, particularly at a point when the championship is well and truly in his hands. Four second-place finishes will be enough to win a maiden F1 crown. As Marc Marquez has proven this year in MotoGP, sometimes settling for second is a very effective tactic – it is one that Rosberg may want to be thinking about.

Alas, when your teammate is Lewis Hamilton, perhaps the blinkered, race-by-race approach is the best way to do things. Shut out negativity. Don’t dwell on the past. Only look forward.

Rosberg might be world champion in just nine days’ time in Mexico. He can wrap up the title with two races to spare if he pulls out another 17 points on Hamilton in the meantime. Should he win the championship, it would not be a ‘skin of his teeth’ success such as that of his father, Keke, who took the 1982 title with just one victory to his name. It would be a convincing title win.

Rosberg’s approach may lack the spark or heart of Hamilton’s title bids, and it may not be very Hollywood – but it is effective. Entrenching himself in this mindset has proven very useful indeed over the past 12 months. Time will tell whether he is rewarded with a world title in 2016.

And maybe then we’ll see the release of emotion from Rosberg that is craved of our champions.

Eli Tomac’s near-perfect season ended perfectly

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From the start, Eli Tomac wanted to go into the season-ending race at Ironman Raceway with the 2020 red plate already in his possession. That final race has been know to devolve into muddy conditions and it is best not to leave things to chance.

For a rider with an almost perfect record of overall podium finishes, one would not have thought there would be much drama at the end of Round 11 at Budds Creek, but it took until the last lap of the final moto for Tomac to achieve his goal.

One reason was that Tomac’s near-perfect season was not so perfect. From the very beginning at Hangtown, Tomac struggled with poor starts to his events. Getting a bad jump out of the gate and finishing fourth in Moto 1 that weekend was not the auspicious beginning he wanted in search of his third consecutive 450 outdoor championship.

The hallmark of Tomac’s season has been overcoming bad starts. He rode through the field at Hangtown and nearly stood on the podium. Then he won Moto 2 and finished second overall. It was his first of nine consecutive overall podiums. Tomac came back the following week for a perfect sweep at Pala.

In Round 3, Tomac once again got off to a bad start. He finished fifth in Moto 1 at Thunder Valley – and then won Moto 2 in a duplication of his opening round.

In Round 5, Tomac had his worst performance until that time. He finished seventh in Moto 1. Nearly halfway through the season, a pattern was firmly established with his Moto 2 win.

Vanessa O’Brien, Kawasaki USA

One should recall that the hallmark of Tomac’s season was strong finishes. Four the next four weeks Tomac failed to podium only one time in a moto. On that occasion, he would stumble in Moto 2 at Spring Creek in Round 8 before scoring his second perfect race at Washougal.

And that is where it got interesting. Tomac left Washougal with a 50-point advantage over Marvin Musquin. It was just the scenario Tomac had seesawed his way through the season to achieve. But it was too good to be true.

In most of his previous bad performances, there was an extenuating circumstance for Tomac’s bad start: a fall or an off course excursion. This time, he simply rode an uninspired race and finished seventh again to match his worst single moto performance. He could not fully rebound in Moto 2 and finished third.

For the first time in 2019, Tomac failed to stand on the overall podium in fourth. Worse still, he lost 10 points to Musquin and no longer had his one-race cushion.

But this is a season of recovery for Tomac. At Budds Creek last week it was reported that Tomac’s lackluster performance in Washington was due to his overdoing his chores on his Colorado ranch. Rested and restored, Tomac scored his third perfect race with Moto 1 & 2 wins. And this time, he looked sharper than he had in any previous race.

Tomac did all the could do by winning both motos, but in the closing laps at Budds Creek he needed a little help to clinch the title. As it turned out, Tomac needed the perfect performance to clinch his third consecutive championship.

In Moto 1, he narrowly edged Ken Roczen and Musquin, to give the three championship contenders a sweep of the top three spots; that was not enough to regain his cushion.

Roczen was close enough to force Tomac into The Ironman needing to score points to permanently affix the red plate on his Kawasaki in 2020, but just as Tomac’s season has been marked by second half improvements, Roczen’s has been marred by a lack of performance in the second motos.

Musquin passed Roczen late in Moto 2 last week and could have extended the drama one more week if he could have caught second-place Jason Anderson. Musquin could not erase an 11-second deficit to the runner-up and now Tomac’s almost perfect season has a distinctly perfect feel to it.

Vanessa O’Brien, Kawasaki USA

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