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Rosberg gets one over on Hamilton in Austria

Nico Rosberg celebrates his Austrian Grand Prix victory (Image: Mercedes AMG)

Nico Rosberg celebrates his Austrian Grand Prix victory (Image: Mercedes AMG)

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.

Mercs are so dominant they can screw up

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg dominated qualifying in Austria (Image: Mercedes AMG)

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg dominated qualifying in Austria (Image: Mercedes AMG)

Mercedes have the fastest car in Formula 1 at present. That’s no secret. But just how fast is their car? It’s so fast that both drivers can go off during what should be their fastest laps in qualifying… and they still lock out the front row. That’s exactly what happened yesterday in Austria.

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were fastest and second fastest in the final part of qualifying, when they started their final flying laps, each attempting to go quicker. Rosberg was ahead on the track and on a quick lap.

Hamilton put a wheel on the grass under braking for the first corner and spun, ending his chances of improving his lap time. Rosberg was up ahead, unaware that Hamilton had spun and pushing hard to try to take pole position. Going into the last sector of the lap, it looked like Rosberg might have just done enough to beat Hamilton to the top spot. But then Rosberg also went off, running wide on the exit of turn 8 before losing the back end of his Mercedes into turn 9.

Although Rosberg managed to catch his car in time to prevent a spin, he ran out of space and went off into the gravel on the outside of the corner, which put an end to his session.

In motor racing, the track typically (not always but usually) gets faster the longer a session goes on. That’s because the cars lay rubber down on the track on every lap they do. More rubber on the track means more grip, which means quicker lap times. That’s why the fastest lap in a qualifying session is almost always done right at the end, and the teams and drivers time their final lap to start at the last possible second to take advantage of the track being at its quickest.

Yesterday in Austria, Mercedes didn’t need their final laps. That’s how quick those cars are. Even without setting a lap time when the track was in optimal condition, they were still faster than everyone else. Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari was over a third of a second off Hamilton’s pace in third place, with no answer to the speed of the mighty Mercedes.

Can anyone beat the Mercedes drivers in the race? We’ll find out this afternoon, but I’ll be surprised if that’s the case.

Rosberg still needs to beat Hamilton in 2015

Nico Rosberg celebrates his Spanish Grand Prix victory (Image: Mercedes AMG F1)

Nico Rosberg celebrates his Spanish Grand Prix victory (Image: Mercedes AMG F1)

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.

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