The coming together between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg on the second lap of last Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix was not a premeditated act of dastardly foreign intrigue, nor was it the death knell for any hopes of a second World Championship title for the plucky Brit. It was, simultaneously, both less and more significant than that. But above all, it was a crushingly predictable conclusion to a relationship between teammates that has moved from diplomatic friendship to waspish paranoia and now outright hostility, within the course of one summer.
Formula 1 fans have become somewhat unaccustomed to this sort of inter-team shenanigans having such a bearing on the outcome of races and championships. Not since Hamilton’s debut season at the top level in 2007 has there been such enmity between two teammates fighting for the title. Hamilton was again at the centre of it, proving an advisary so exasperating for Fernando Alonso at McLaren that the Spanish World Champion resorted to behind the scenes political manouevring in order to try and destabilise his new rival.
The end result, Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen coming up on the rails to snatch the crown at the final race by a single point from the McLaren pair was, with the benefit of hindsight, an inevitability. And although the performance differential between the Mercedes Grand Prix team and their rivals is huge compared with the evenly-matched 2007 vintage McLarens and Ferraris, it will not have escaped anyone’s notice that Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo has now won three races in a season where no-one else except a Mercedes driver has occupied the top step of the podium. This includes the last two consecutive Grands Prix, and on both occasions he has been assisted in no small part by tactical, procedural and personnel failings within the German team.
In Spa-Francorchamps, Mercedes were two seconds per lap ahead of the field in qualifying, but ended up losing the race by three seconds. At the moment, Mercedes aren’t even risking winning every battle but ending up losing the war; they are busily shooting themselves in the foot in every individual skirmish.
Rosberg was the beneficiary in Belgium, finishing second in spite of the damage he incurred during his contact with his teammate to extend his lead to 29 points in the championship standings. This margin will take Hamilton five races to overhaul if he were to win each race with Rosberg second, an increasingly tall order with only seven events left in this season’s calendar. However, that’s a lot of laps and miles to just write off in one sentence, especially with the looming spectre of double points at the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi. Rosberg’s coronation is by no means a foregone conclusion.
The bigger question is where Hamilton’s head is at. There are few people who doubt that all things being equal, Hamilton is the faster racing driver. I suspect that, being as intelligent and realistic as he is, Nico Rosberg will have been by far the last person to realise this. Hamilton is also better than Rosberg in racing through the pack, and has the greater experience in competing at the business end of Formula 1 championships. He seemingly holds all the cards.
Yet in Belgium, Lewis seemed completely shellshocked by what had happened. There was no bullishness at all in his driving, just meek protestations that the team should just let him retire his (admittedly damaged) car and go home. This is not the way World Championships are won.
In recent years, Lewis Hamilton’s greatest weakness has been in his mental strength and focus. His personal life has been rather turbulent, and it is widely believed to have been seeping into his performances on the track. The ability to close the visor and get on with it: not so much a question of intelligence but instead one of mind-management, this is where Rosberg’s greatest strength lies. He has played his cards perfectly in 2014.
The sad fact is, Lewis Hamilton has too often let him do it. Hamilton’s great rival and someone for whom the Brit has the most impeccable levels of respect, Fernando Alonso, has experienced just as much upheaval in his personal life as his former teammate but you’d never know it. You’d not even have bothered to guess. Nico Rosberg is wise enough to realise this. He’d never have tried anything like that on Fernando.
Because all the drivers have a mental database, little pen pics of each of their rivals which they refer to as they approach. Where they are strong, where they are weak and what they are likely to do. Too often this season, Rosberg has seen his own weakness exploited. Every time he and Hamilton have duelled on the track, it’s been the Briton who has come out on top. Hamilton’s speed and combativeness are beyond reproach, and he knows it.
In the previous race in Hungary, Hamilton had managed to finish ahead of Nico despite starting from the pit lane after his car broke down in qualifying. Rosberg, who led away from the pole position, could barely believe it. Lewis’s (completely reasonable) refusal to allow his teammate to pass during the middle of the race, as per the team strategists’ request will have done little to improve his mood. But the coup de grace was on the final lap, when Rosberg went wheel-to-wheel again with Hamilton to try and wrest the final podium spot away from his teammate. On much fresher tyres Rosberg had all the advantages but it was Hamilton who came out on top, artfully and fairly giving his rival the option of fourth place or a spin on the wet grass of turn three. Rosberg accepted the former, but I think this is where the Rubicon was crossed.
The kind of incident we saw in Belgium happens all the time down the field in Formula 1 Grands Prix. But it rarely ever occurs at the sharp end. There’s a reason for this: the seasoned frontrunners are too good, too smart and too experienced to let it happen. So when it does, it usually means rather more than just clumsiness. Such was the case at Spa.
Hamilton, leading the race, once again put his teammate in the position where he had the stark choice between staying behind or having an accident. Top drivers do this all the time. Regrettably so, one can argue. When any contact between cars was liable to cause a fatal collision, drivers were understandably reticent to employ this tactic. But the modern day Grand Prix car is a fully collapsable bells-and-whistles technological miracle, one of the unfortunate side effects of which is that it can be employed as a weapon or, as was the case here, an instrument used to make a point.
Giving your rival The Choice was a technique absolutely honed to an artform by Ayrton Senna. Senna is Lewis Hamilton’s great racing hero, but Lewis could benefit from adopting more than just his racing techniques. When Senna gave you the choice to stay in your place or have an accident, he really didn’t care which one you did. He was mentally prepared for the consequences: physical, sporting and even spiritual of either. Hamilton, meanwhile, was completely stunned when Nico took the latter option. His air of abused innocence was something we’d heard many times before from Senna, but it was different on this occasion. Hamilton really meant it. His confusion was total, his world view shattered. This was something Hamilton was just not expecting Rosberg to do, it wasn’t in his mental database. And that is why Nico Rosberg did it.
There’s no judgement here. Hamilton did the right thing. He raced fairly, giving his rival a perfectly reasonable option. Rosberg just perhaps realised that, psychologically speaking, sometimes having the accident is the right thing to do too. Formula 1 isn’t a school sports day. While I confess I was a little disappointed that it had to happen, I suspect that it did HAVE to happen. No-one should do anything on a racing circuit that deliberately endangers a rival driver, but beyond that I think it needs to be accepted that these are professional racing drivers, Formula 1 drivers, brilliant and talented racing drivers and that as such they know what they’re doing.
There’s every chance that the result of their collision will be to make Hamilton push on further, go up another level. I think this is a risk that Rosberg has considered and has accepted. When you race with Lewis Hamilton, there is always the chance that he will just simply outpace you and, come race day, disappear into the distance. But make no mistake, even if Hamilton does this and ends up winning the championship on the back of it, it will be born out of a desire to keep the hell away from Nico Rosberg on the track as much as anything else. That he could come out faster but not necessarily stronger, in other words.
With Hamilton undermined and unsure, Rosberg has guaranteed that, no matter what the points standings say at the end of the 2014 season, he will have beaten his teammate.