© Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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, Ken Roczen finish 1-2 at High Point, tie for points lead

Rich Shepherd, ProMotocross
Leave a comment

Time was running off the clock and Eli Tomac was going to give up the overall win to Ken Roczen, until the Colorado native dug deep and made the pass for second in Moto 2 at High Point Raceway at Mount Morris, Penn. Roczen would win his third Moto of the season, but Tomac won the war.

With a third-place finish in Moto 1 and his second in Moto 2, Tomac grabbed the overall victory for the second time this season in Round 4 of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross championship.

For Tomac, it was another difficult start to the race. He tipped his bike over in Moto 1 and fell back to fifth while battling two seconds behind the leader Blake Baggett. Tomac had to battle his way back toward the front again after barely cracking the top five in the first Motos in two of the first three rounds.

Roczen fared even worse in Moto 1. He finished sixth in that race – more than 34 seconds behind the leader Baggett. Determined to make up for his bad start, Roczen charged through the field in Moto 2 and took the lead from Cooper Webb on Lap 9.

“I was just going to charge,” Roczen told NBC Sports after his Moto win. “Do the best I can. I went back to my Colorado (last week) settings because the first race was awful; I couldn’t even ride.”

Tomac entered the round two points behind Roczen and was able to make up only those two points. The battle continues onto Florida next week with a tie for the top spot.

With a 2-5, Jason Anderson grabbed third overall.

Battling back from injury, Anderson faded in the closing laps of Moto 2, but is regaining strength each week.

Webb (third) and Zach Osborne (fourth) rounded out the top five in Moto 2 and finished fourth and fifth respectively overall.

Moto 1 featured a rider searching for his first Moto win in two years. Baggett earned the holeshot and held off an early advantage by Tomac. When Tomac fell, it handed second to Anderson, who finished nearly 10 seconds behind the leader.

“Every time I get out front here, I have that weird sensation of trying to keep it on two wheels,” Baggett said on NBC Sports Gold following his win.

Tomac was not the only rider to go down in Moto 1. Webb lost his pegs on Lap 9 and became the cape to his KTM motorcycle as he flew along holding tight to the handlebars. He recovered in that race to finish seventh.

450 Moto 1 Results
450 Moto 2 Results
450 Overall Results
Points Standings

Adam Cianciarulo remains perfect in the 250 class. Winning Moto 2 in each round so far this season, Cianciarulo has capitalized on his late event surges to sweep Victory Lane in the first four weeks.

It wasn’t an easy run for Cianciarulo, nonetheless. He was only fifth at the end of Lap 1 in Moto 1 and was forced to slice through the field to get to second at the checkers of that race.

“Just coming to the races now – coming to outdoor nationals now – compared to the past, it’s just an entirely different vibe,” Cianciarulo said on NBCSN after the race. “It’s like I’m experiencing it for the first time because for the first time in my whole pro career I believe in myself.

“It’s a process when you hit rock bottom and start coming back.”

Hunter Lawrence stole the show in Moto 1. Earning his first career win handily, he came out in Moto 2 and proved it was not a fluke by finishing third in the race and taking second overall.

“It’s awesome,” Lawrence said on NBC Sports Gold following his Moto 1 victory. “It’s just a Moto win, but it’s a big milestone in our trip and campaign.”

Chase Sexton earned the holeshot in Moto 1, but faded to fourth at the end. Sexton kept Cianciarulo in sight in the back half of Moto 2 to finish second in the race and third overall.

With a 3-4, Dylan Ferrandis finished fourth overall with Colt Nichols (5-5) finishing fifth.

After losing the overall at Thunder Valley amidst controversy, Justin Cooper wanted to make a statement. He barely raised his voice with a sixth in Moto 1 and a ninth in Moto 2 to finish ninth overall.  He lost another 20 points to the points leader as Cianciarulo starts to edge away from the pack. Cooper remains second in the points, but is now 26 back.

Garrett Marchbanks went down hard on Lap 4 of Moto 1 and had the bike land on his head. He did not start Moto 2, but there have been no report of injury yet.

250 Moto 1 Results
250 Moto 2 Results
250 Overall Results
Points Standings

Moto Wins

450MX
[4] Eli Tomac (Hangtown II, Pala I & Pala II, Thunder Valley II)
[3] Ken Roczen (Hangtown I, Thunder Valley I, High Point II)
[1] Blake Baggett (High Point I)

250MX
[4] Adam Cianciarulo (Hangtown II, Pala II, Thunder Valley I, High Point II)
[3] Justin Cooper (Hangtown I, Pala I, Thunder Valley I)
[1] Hunter Lawrence (High Point I)

Next race: WW Ranch Motocross Park, Jacksonville, Fla. June 22

Season passes can be purchased at NBC Sports Gold.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter