On Sunday 26th October 2015 Lewis Hamilton claimed his third Formula One World Championship in front of a packed Circuit of the Americas in Austin Texas, USA.
Amidst the scenes of jubilant celebration between the 30 year old Briton and his team following victory in the Grand Prix, teammate Nico Rosberg cut a somewhat dejected figure in the race paddock with the look of a man that knows he’s lost another opportunity to emulate his illustrious father Keke and take a World Championship for himself.
The race in Austin on Sunday actually provided a very good commentary on how the Germans season has developed since the cars first rolled out onto the Albert Park tarmac back in March. From being out muscled into the first corner by an exceptionally aggressive Hamilton move to showing gritty determination bringing himself back into contention until a mistake opened the door for his Mercedes teammate to romp home for the victory and with it the World title.
Rosberg has every reason to feel dejected after a season that promised so much but has delivered surprisingly little from his side of the team’s garage. Losing certain victory in Sundays race will only further compound that disappointment and lead to some very tough questions the young German needs to ask himself if he is to finish on a high this season, or indeed if he can re gather some momentum in order to provide a tougher challenge to his Mercedes teammate next year.
So where has it all gone wrong for the driver who is fast becoming the bridesmaid in this new era of Formula One?
When the FIA announced major changes to the rules that govern Grand Prix racing back in 2013 with a switch to hybrid engines and a focus on more intelligent driving and energy consumption management, many tipped Rosberg to be at the forefront of the new generation of Grand Prix driver. Known for his mechanical understanding and ability to absorb and use information for his own benefit, on paper the new rules looked like a perfect fit for the intelligent driver from Wiesbaden. Fresh of the back of beating the legendary Michael Schumacher when they paired together for the German marque during 2010 – 2012 seasons, Rosberg entered his relationship with Lewis Hamilton on a high at the beginning of the 2013 season, the last of the current era high revving V8 engines.
2013 saw many flashes of promise for Nico with poles in Bahrain, Barcelona and Monaco following up with wins in the principality and the home of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in June. Indeed Rosberg ended the 2013 season with the upper hand over his 2009 World Champion teammate beating Hamilton 6 times in the final 8 races including a podiums in India and Abu Dhabi. However the writing was on the wall when one looks at the final championship standings with Hamilton sneaking the advantage by 18 points on route to P4 in the final points positions, 2 ahead of his Mercedes teammate.
Winter development brought great gains for the Brackley operation, lifting the Mercedes team to the very front of the field with a sizable advantage over its nearest rivals when the cars headed out for first practice at the beginning of the new season. It appeared that Rosberg had a slight edge over his British teammate during the early stages of 2014, compounded with some misfortune for Hamilton leading to an early advantage in the points table and a superior qualifying record for the number 6 Mercedes. At this stage in the season it genuinely appeared that the mental edge firmly rested in the other side of the Mercedes garage with 5 wins and 7 pole positions for Nico compared to 3 wins and 4 poles for Lewis.
The ‘Spa Incident’ and the following crowd and media reactions seemed to knock the wind out Rosberg’s sail’s and appeared to mentally destabilise the Germans championship challenge during the run to the end of the season. With Hamilton taking energy from the fan reaction and bringing his performance up to a new level, slowly but surely Rosberg’s form began to drop and numerous previously unheard of mistakes started to creep into his race performances. With the benefit of hindsight, one wonders if Nico began to suffer the same sort of issues Australian Mark Webber had to face during his title challenge in 2011, when performances rapidly began to drop during the heat of a title battle and the pressure is raised to its highest with every point counting for more than in the earlier stages of the season.
Nico rallied somewhat at the final 3 Grand Prix and signed off with 3 successive Pole Positions (and the season ending Pole Award trophy) but never won another race after Spa, ending his season in brave but ultimately pointless fashion at Abu Dhabi has his teammate romped home to the title and the adoration of his Mercedes colleagues. Media interviews at the time with Rosberg suggested he knew where his weaknesses lay and would be redoubling his efforts during the off season to strengthen his overall package and come back into 2015 stronger and more able to take the fight to his impressive teammate.
As is sometimes the case with drivers who narrowly miss the Championship the previous year (again think Webber 2011 – 2012) Rosberg seemed under pressure and preoccupied when the curtain fell in Melbourne this season, never quite seeming to get into the sort of early season groove he experienced the previous year. Coupled with a newly confident and maturing Lewis Hamilton, Rosberg never seemed to be able to consistently pull together those special performances required to take the fight to his teammate, and indeed the newly reborn Ferrari team now with Sebastian Vettel leading the charge for the Italian marque.
Race wins have proven hard to come by this year for Rosberg, only taking the spoils on 3 occasions in Spain, Monaco and Austria. Recent qualifying form does seem to be returning however as Nico locked out the front position for the last 3 races, however somewhat tellingly it was his teammate who converted those races into victory while a multitude of issues prevented Rosberg from collecting the 25 points.
Post-race at Austin, Rosberg looked every inch the broken driver, gone was the playful grin and charming personality and it its place looked like a man haunted by the fact that once again an excellent opportunity to win that elusive first World Championship has slipped through his grasp. Nico will be painfully aware that he is up against a teammate who is widely considered as one of the best in the business and currently enjoying the form of his life. Surely Rosberg will have to dig deeper still to be able to take the challenge to his rival for the remaining races and indeed for the new season in 2016.
In every sport you have to have winners and losers, none more so than in Grand Prix racing where drivers find themselves pitched against their main rivals in equal machinery working for the same management, driving together for the benefit of their team while also racing for themselves. How one can use the energy of the others performance and analyse where advantages are won and lost can be the difference between success and failure in Formula One. Nico Rosberg is known as a very clinical and thoughtful driver but I for one can’t help but think that maybe he would be best served to take a step away from the data, stop thinking as much about comparing himself to Lewis and just concentrate on bringing back the fun and enjoyment into his driving. To do what he does best, drive quickly and win Grands Prix.
It will be interesting to see how Rosberg reacts in five days time at the newly refurbished Mexican Grand Prix, will he come back stronger and be able to build his foundations ready for a title push in 2016? Or will he be able to hold his own against Sebastian Vettel in his fight for second place in the drivers championship?
Whatever happens in the remainder of 2015 one thing is clear, Nico Rosberg has a lot of work to do to avoid becoming the new ‘nearly man’ of Grand Prix racing.
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