With the exception of the recent Spanish Grand Prix, it has been a great start to the Formula One season for Nico Rosberg. Before he and Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton collided on lap one in Barcelona, Rosberg had won the first four races of the year – a feat only previously achieved on four occasions: by Ayrton Senna (in 1991), Nigel Mansell (in 1992) and Michael Schumacher (in 1994 and 2004), all on their way to winning the World Championship.
Rosberg now leads the championship by 39 points from Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, and by 43 points from Hamilton. Since F1’s new points system was introduced in 2010 (25 for a win, 18 for second, down to 1 for tenth) only once has a driver built up a lead of that size in the opening five races: Sebastian Vettel led Hamilton by 41 points following the 2011 Spanish Grand Prix. He went on to win the championship comfortably, finishing 122 points ahead of runner-up Jenson Button.
Rosberg’s performance in the first four races lifted him to the status of ‘F1 great’. He’s now 16th on the list of all-time winners, with 18, and only nine drivers have bettered his 24 pole positions. The Russian Grand Prix marked his seventh win in a row – an achievement matched only by Schumacher and Alberto Ascari, and beaten only by Vettel (with nine). In Russia, he also became only the 24th driver ever to take pole position, set fastest lap, lead every lap and win the race (F1’s ‘grand slam’).
He’s now the most accomplished driver never to have won the World Championship. It’s looking as though that will change this year.
And yet, Nico’s not a shoo-in for the title. The bookies will give you odds of 4-to-6 against him winning it, meaning they think he has about a 60 per cent chance. They give Lewis around a 40 per cent chance, despite the fact that he hasn’t yet won a race this year and despite that 43-point deficit.
Why so? Well, there’s still a sense that none of Rosberg’s four wins this year saw him defeat Hamilton in a straight fight. Hamilton beat Rosberg to pole in Australia and Bahrain, only to get stuck behind slower cars after poor starts (and, in Bahrain, a tap from Valtteri Bottas), and mechanical problems prevented Lewis from competing for the front row in China and Spain. Without those problems, Hamilton might have won any – or even all – of those races instead of Rosberg.
And, of course, there’s a long way left to go. 2016 will be the longest season in F1 history, with 21 Grands Prix. With 16 races still to go, the remainder of the championship is as long as the entirety of the 2003 season, or most years in the 90s.
In the last 16 races of 2014, Hamilton gained 53 points on Rosberg, going from 11 points behind to 42 points ahead (even once you discount the extra 25 he got when double points were awarded as a one-off at the final race). In the last 16 of 2015, Hamilton secured 46 points more than Rosberg, extending his lead from 13 points after round three to 59 at the end of the year. If Lewis can produce the same results relative to his teammate in the rest of this season as he did in the last two years, he can catch Nico.
But Nico certainly seems like a tougher competitor this year. He has barely put a wheel wrong all season. In all three races that Hamilton started from pole, Rosberg beat him into turn one. He was overtaken by both Ferraris off the grid in Australia (as was Lewis), but after taking the lead on lap 35 Rosberg led 185 of the next 188 laps until his coming together with Hamilton in Spain last Sunday.
That crash was the result, in part, of a tiny mistake by Rosberg on the grid. His engine was set to the wrong mode, leaving him with less power than Hamilton coming out of turn three. That allowed Hamilton to close up rapidly and dive for the gap. When Rosberg closed the door, Hamilton took to the grass, spun and collected his teammate, taking them both out of the race. A small, out-of-character technical mistake by Rosberg, an aggressive move by Hamilton and a firm defence by Rosberg cost Mercedes the chance of another dominant performance.
It won’t have done the pair’s already fractious relationship any good, and will leave each as determined as ever to beat the other to the title. Nico’s faultless run in the first four races, and Lewis’ bad luck, has left Rosberg with a sizeable lead. But Hamilton has shown in the last two years that he’s capable of overcoming it. 2016 is shaping up very nicely indeed.
- Guest Blogger Jonathan Jones, a political researcher and F1 fan who writes about US politics for the New Statesman.