Nico Rosberg has raised his game in the last couple of the races. But can he emerge as a serious title threat after the winter, questions Rachit Thukral
Nico Rosberg has come under severe criticism this season for failing to pose a consistent challenge to Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton. While Hamilton cruised to another world title, Rosberg was left fighting for runner up position in the drivers standings.
Such has been the disparity in performance between the two drivers that some have gone on to suggest that the top brass at Mercedes needs to find a replacement for the German.
But the events of the last two races in Mexico and Brazil have shown that Rosberg has the potential to beat Hamilton consistently - and fair & square.
At both the occasions, Rosberg stuck his car on pole position, continuing with the trend that started in Japan. Now, Rosberg has already proved in 2014 that he can have an upper hand in qualifying. It was just about finding his feat again.
But the biggest upswing in performance has come on Sundays - something he has been working on since last year. At Suzuki and Sao Paulo, Rosberg made perfect getaways, not opening the door for Hamilton during the opening sequence of corners, and thereby, preventing a repeat of Austin and Suzuka.
He cleverly slowed his pace during the second stint at Interlagos to manage his tyres, while maintaining just enough gap over Hamilton to prevent a passing manoeuvre. Had Mercedes sticked to a two-stop strategy, Rosberg would have had enough life in his tyres to go till the end of the race on three sets of rubber.
“Suddenly [Robserg’s] brain switched and off he goes,” said Niki Lauda after Rosberg took back-to-back wins in Mexico and Brazil. “These things happen to drivers. Sometimes you fight with yourself, and suddenly you get free in your head and off you go – because he is as quick as Lewis. Everything going well for him, he can win.
“Nevertheless [Hamilton] is still fighting; you can see this every lap. But at the moment, Nico is better.”
Some have suggested that Hamilton has backed his pace now that the championship has been decided in his favour. Hamilton himself admitted that his ‘main job is done’ this season after losing pole position to Rosberg in Brazil. But his quote seemed more like a mind game targeted towards Rosberg than anything else. In fact, the British driver later denied that he is lacking motivation at this stage of the season.
"I came here with the same fire and desire to win this race that I've had all year long,’’ he said. “Trust me, I did everything that was in my ability today, and exhausted every skill that I had out there to try and get by, but I just couldn't. Nico did a great job, and now we move forward, and with the last race there's still another shot."
It would be interesting to see if Rosberg can carry this form into the final round in Abu Dhabi. If he does manage to win that race, it would be his third victory in a row. And if he again triumphs in qualifying, his pole streak will extend to six races.
Whether it’s the case of finding another gear or the absence of pressure, the upturn in Rosberg’s performance bodes well for the 2016 season.
But Rosberg needs to put this sort of performance week-in and week-out. He has a more than formidable teammate in equal machinery, who, on his day, is nearly unbeatable. Plus, Hamilton will be working hard over the winter to reassert his authority in F1.
An intense intra-team battle will raise the spectacle of a sport that has been marred in negativity since the inception of V6 turbo era in 2014. Their rivalry will become even more important, if Ferrari fails to close the gap sufficiently in 2016 to challenge for the championship, and not just odd race wins.
by Rachit Thukral