Nico Rosberg has joined the 2015 Formula 1 World Championship fight with a superb victory at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. Rosberg beat team-mate Lewis Hamilton in a straight fight for the win, with Felipe Massa finishing third for Williams.
This is not Rosberg’s first win of the 2015 season – in fact it’s his third – but it’s a very significant victory. Why? Because it’s the first time in 2015 that Rosberg has beaten Lewis Hamilton in a straight fight. It’s a psychological victory more than a points victory and it signals the start of what could be an epic battle for the Drivers’ Championship.
Hamilton is the reigning world champion. He’s had the lion’s share of pole positions – 7 out of 8 races this season, with the other one going to Rosberg in Spain – and has been the man to beat in all of the races so far, winning 4 out of 8 in quite dominant fashion. And until today, it looked like Rosberg might not have an answer for Hamilton’s form.
It’s true that Rosberg had already won two races this season, but neither would have been as satisfying as today’s win. In the Spanish Grand Prix, Rosberg drove flawlessly to win from pole position, but was never in a straight fight with his team-mate, who had a poor start and was stuck behind Sebastian Vettel for much of the race.
In Monaco, Hamilton had the race firmly under control when his team called him into the pits at the wrong time in response to the safety car being deployed late in the race. Rosberg inherited the win, but it had clearly been Hamilton’s day.
While a win counts for 25 points no matter how it is earned, Rosberg will have been aware that he had yet to beat Hamilton in a straight for victory this season. But that’s all changed now. In Austria, Rosberg made a stunning start to beat Hamilton (who was on pole) into the first corner. He then fended off a determined attack from Hamilton into turn 2 and again into turn 3 on the opening lap.
Rosberg controlled the rest of the race to take a much-needed victory and close the gap to championship leader Hamilton to just 10 points. But perhaps more importantly for Rosberg, he had a wheel-to-wheel battle with Hamilton and won. In Austria, Rosberg was the better driver.
Until today, it was hard to imagine Rosberg beating Hamilton to the title. But now it’s a possibility. Hamilton and Rosberg could be locked in a battle for the title reminiscent of Senna and Prost in the 1980s. Formula 1 just got exciting again.
Nico Rosberg took a big step forward in his 2015 championship campaign by winning the Spanish Grand Prix on Sunday. But there’s still an important step Rosberg needs to take if he is to challenge for the championship this season – he needs to beat Lewis Hamilton in a straight fight for victory. That didn’t happen in Spain.
Let’s take nothing away from Rosberg’s Spanish Grand Prix performance. He did everything right. His race was faultless. He took pole, led from the start and didn’t put a wheel wrong all afternoon – all of which resulted in a commanding victory.
The trouble was Hamilton was never really in the fight for victory. Having qualified second, Hamilton started from the dirty side of the track (the part of the track not on the racing line). He made a less than perfect start and was passed by Sebastian Vettel into the first corner. From then until the second round of pitstops, Hamilton was stuck behind Vettel, unable to get close enough to pass despite having a much faster car.
Rosberg took full advantage of the situation and pulled away, creating a gap that Hamilton could not hope to close once he eventually passed Vettel using pit strategy. Full marks to Rosberg for controlling the race. But he will be aware that he did not actually out-drive Hamilton. At no point in the race did Rosberg have to pass Hamilton, or defend against him.
Had Hamilton made it into the first corner second, instead of third as was the case, then the race would have been entirely different. Rosberg would have had to fight Hamilton for victory from lights to flag. As it happened, the two Mercedes drivers were not really in the same race, although they ended up finishing first and second in the Grand Prix.
So Rosberg won fair and square. But at no point in the race was he actually racing Hamilton. In the entire weekend, Rosberg only really did two things better than Hamilton – he took pole, which is to Rosberg’s credit as that was a straight fight between the two Mercedes drivers; and he made a better start, which is at least partly the result of starting on the “clean” side of the track.
So Rosberg’s satisfaction at winning the race, while significant, will be tempered by the knowledge that he still needs to assume some form of psychological ascendancy if he is to mount a serious title challenge. Admittedly, that wasn’t possible as the race played out on Sunday. Perhaps it will still happen.
The 2015 Formula 1 World Championship is only 3 races old, and yet Nico Rosberg is already a non-contender. Yes, he has the fastest car, and yes, he’s a quality driver, but that’s not enough for him to compete with Lewis Hamilton for title glory.
Why is Rosberg out of the running? Because he’s already psyched himself out of it. After just three races, during which he has never looked like beating Hamilton, Rosberg is already complaining publicly that Hamilton is playing dirty. After today’s Chinese Grand Prix, Rosberg stated in the post-race interviews that Hamilton had deliberately driven slowly in order to back Rosberg up into the clutches of third-placed Sebastian Vettel.
Even if that’s true, it’s an extraordinary statement for Rosberg to make. It’s an admission that he is powerless to compete against Hamilton. He’s made it clear that Hamilton can, at will, dictate to him (Rosberg) on the track. Let’s be clear – if Hamilton were to drive slowly with Rosberg close behind, that would be Rosberg’s cue to pass him or make a change to his pit strategy that would give him a clear track and allow him to make full use of the pace of his car.
The only logical explanation for Rosberg’s post-race outburst is this: He knows he just isn’t quick enough to beat Hamilton, and so he’s resorting to badly-conceived attempts to draw Hamilton into a war of words that might distract him from his driving. Hamilton is a double World Champion, and has plenty of experience dealing with pressure at the front. Rosberg’s tactic is therefore extremely unlikely to work.
Hamilton should take confidence from Rosberg’s behaviour. Rosberg has acknowledged Hamilton’s status as number one at Mercedes. Now Hamilton only really has to worry about Sebastian Vettel, currently sitting second in the championship and no stranger to the pressures of a title fight. And Vettel’s Ferrari, while very quick, is no real match for Hamilton’s Mercedes.
Rosberg has effectively handed Hamilton the 2015 World Championship.