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.