Mercedes have once again enjoyed a season at the front of the field which has at times, been rather lonely and uncontested. Their achievement in 2016 is a bumpy road that has yielded another top result – with Hamilton and Rosberg pushing one another, a car that is once again the pride of the field and a philosophy that allows the drivers to race, Mercedes head to Yas Marina with one score to settle – A Driver Championship.
At the start of the year, the question wasn’t one concerned with which team would head into 2016 on top, but where the challenge to Mercedes would come from. Many believed Ferrari would be the challengers, but a massively improved Red Bull at the hands of Daniel Ricciardo and the sensational Max Verstappen has proven to be the package to cause a few headaches along the way for Mercedes.
Rosberg’s form in the first four races was impeccable, 100-points, four-victories and something we hadn’t seen from the German in his Formula One career so far. He drove like a winner, talked like a winner and had an unchallenged focus. Hamilton seemed out of form in these opening races, his season unfolding at a frustrating rate. The Brit didn’t look like his usual self, possibly because he is rarely one to finish behind his teammate in the fashion that he was.
Then, boiling point. What happened in Barcelona was a low-point for the team and a complete breakdown in the relationship between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Without even trying to appropriate blame on the actual crash, the issue was over-aggressive, a red mist behind the visor. To be leading 1-2 on lap one and to throw it away uncontested was the issue for the heads at Mercedes. It was a brief collapse that saw off-track relations darken.
Whatever the cause, the Lewis Hamilton that emerged from the gravel trap of Barcelona looked nothing like the Lewis Hamilton from the opening four races. The familiar Lewis returned, the one that wins races and leaves the pack for dust. His first win of the season in Monaco spurred him on to near-perfection in the five races that followed.
The momentum came to the Brit in Canada, a race in which he dominated as Nico Rosberg dropped into the chasing pack, a blip behind Max Verstappen going into the Wall of Champions a first sign of frustration and the birthplace of a theme that would run for the rest of the season regarding the Dutchman’s defensive prowess.
The chink in Hamilton’s dominance up until Belgium arrived in the form of a mistake in Qualifying and a frustrating steering wheel malfunction at the European Grand Prix in Baku, that undoubtedly cost him valuable points in radio restrictive conditions that would later be amended, at a date too late, Hamilton and his fans would argue.
The following race in Austria provided scandal for Mercedes too, the incident in the closing stages between Rosberg and Hamilton was daring from the German, “Senna-esque” in a way. His hunger for victory over his team-mate was so much that he deliberately ran Hamilton wide, but ruined his own race in a dish of instant karma from the racing Gods. Hamilton won and Rosberg lost 6-points, dropping from a definite 2nd to 4th – How significant this incident will be if the unlikely happens in Abu Dhabi and Hamilton claims the title by 5-points or less.
The relationship between the Mercedes drivers was dead at this point, Mercedes would have a task covering up the bitter rivalry between Hamilton and Rosberg. Whilst this was another headache for a table-punching Toto Wolff and co, the pair haven’t put a wheel wrong since in relation to one another.
Hamilton matched Nico’s early season dominance with follow-up victories at Silverstone, the Hungaroring and Hockenheim, but the engine penalty was coming. Mechanical attrition has averted Rosberg’s stable this season, but has haunted Hamilton significantly.
To me, one of the Brit’s greatest drives this season came at Spa. He thrived under pressure and his A-game was on show in the Ardennes, climbing to the podium from the back of the grid in an excellent recovery drive.
The following race in Italy was the opposite. To be hugely impressed by Hamilton in Spa and then see Rosberg pull a masterful win out of the bag in Monza a week later surely highlights the quality of both drivers. On paper, nobody was thinking beyond the realms of a Hamilton win. His record around the high-throttle circuit is testament to his cuteness on the brakes and his Qualifying performance matched the build-up. Pole, with a half-second gap back to Rosberg. Nobody was giving the German much of a chance. Hamilton got off the line poorly, but once he’d climbed back up to 2nd, he was unable to close the gap to Rosberg. The race wasn’t won and lost on the opening lap, but developed as the race went on into something many argue was one of Rosberg’s greatest victories.
Rosberg took this crucial form to the Singapore Grand Prix too, arguably the most physically demanding race of the season for the drivers. He again was victorious as Hamilton struggled to match Ricciardo’s Red Bull for 2nd, he was always going to finish highly on a twisty street circuit attuned well to the strengths of the RB12’s chassis.
The Malaysian Grand Prix may be regarded as the race in which Hamilton lost the 2016 World Championship, through no fault of his own. The engine failure saw the price of tinfoil spike as conspiracy theories ran wild. “A German team want a German Champ” was the rhetoric, for a team based in Brackley, developing the failed parts in question in the UK. It was a directionless reflection of Hamilton’s frustration, but won’t deter from Rosberg’s ability. After all, we rarely mention that Felipe Massa suffered more retirements and in-season issues than Lewis Hamilton on the road to the 2008 World Championship. Mechanical attrition has always been a part of Motorsport and always will be, the victims of it rarely at fault.
Hamilton himself dealt with the situation well, his post-race comments coaxed into a context that appropriated conspiracy, when what we were really given was an adrenaline-induced interview directly after the incident that was cheekily packaged as a factual finger pointing against the Mercedes team.
Rosberg’s last win arrived in Japan, his race another dominant display that fell beneath the radar as Hamilton and Max Verstappen battled behind, but the following races in the USA, Mexico and Brazil saw Hamilton achieve something in his Formula One career that he has somehow, averted up until now. Three wins from Pole position in a row – the form of a Champion arriving quite late.
The 2016 season will conclude at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the odds are heavily in Rosberg’s favor. The question of his worthiness as a World Champion falls at a single glance of the Driver Standings – why keep count otherwise?
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 24, 2016
Hamilton goes into the finale at Yas Marina with the opportunity to beat Rosberg on the race-win front regardless of what happens in the standings. Both Mercedes drivers have nine-wins apiece and this race, if the story of the Silver Arrows in 2016 is anything to go by, will be definitely one to enjoy.