In The Driver's Seat

Nico calm under pressure while Lewis must rise again

It was Rudyard Kipling who began his famous poem, If, thus:

"If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/But make allowance for their doubting too…"

And in Suzuka, one might have paraphrased the final verse and imagined it spoken by Keke Rosberg to his victorious offspring Nico:

"If you can fill the unforgiving hour and twenty-six minutes/With 53 laps' worth of distance run/Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it/And - which is more - you'll be a champion, my son!"

For there was something utterly compelling about the manner in which the 31 year-old German dominated the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday, not just to win for the first time at Suzuka, nor even for an impressive ninth time this season, but also to extend his world championship lead to 33 points.

We have become used to Rosberg trying valiantly yet somehow ultimately coming up short against that fiercest of his life's competitors, the unstoppable Lewis Hamilton. But, the latter's Malaysian GP performance notwithstanding, it's Rosberg who has lately looked the stronger.


Nico Rosberg at the drivers' parade before the Japanese race. The momentum is clearly with him and he can be champion without another win. PHOTO: REUTERS

We have become used to Rosberg trying valiantly yet somehow ultimately coming up short against that fiercest of his life's competitors... It's Rosberg who has lately looked the stronger.

And last weekend in Japan, there was the feeling that it was he who was indeed keeping his head, while Hamilton appeared to be losing his.

On Thursday, in the preview press conference, there was the celebrated incident when he was playing with Snapchat, turning himself and Spanish racer Carlos Sainz into animals on his mobile phone's screen.

Already he had been flensed by some media for speaking his mind after the failure of his Mercedes engine in Malaysia the previous week. Now they attacked again.

Hamilton, a man under pressure if ever there was one, mulled that over, and on Saturday afternoon dropped another bombshell when he declined to speak with the media at the Mercedes conference.

He was firm, but he did it with a measure of grace.

"With the utmost respect, there are many of you here that are super-supportive of me, and those of you hopefully know I know who they are," he said.

"There are others unfortunately that often take advantage of certain things. The other day (the Snapchat moment) was a super light-hearted thing, and if I was disrespectful to any of you guys, or if you felt that I was disrespectful, it honestly was not the intention, it was just a little bit of fun.

"But what was more disrespectful was what was then written worldwide. So, I don't really plan on sitting here many more times for these kinds of things. My apologies."

On Sunday he made what was arguably his fifth poor start of the year, dropping from second on the grid behind Rosberg to eighth, and then having to fight back to finish third.

Therein lay the next twist, for Dutch runner-up Max Verstappen had chopped him hard in the chicane on the penultimate lap, when resisting a challenge. Hamilton was equivocal in his comments afterwards, saying: "Well… it doesn't really matter now. It's done and we move forwards."

But nearly three hours after the race, Mercedes announced their intention to protest against Verstappen, for allegedly driving erratically and in a dangerous manner.

Then Hamilton tweeted: "There is no protest from either myself or @MercedesAMGF1. One idiot said we have but it's not true. Max drove well, end of. We move on."

That message was swiftly deleted, before 80 minutes later Mercedes announced their protest was withdrawn, ostensibly because it could not be heard until the next race, in Texas in two weeks' time.

Hamilton finally tweeted: "There is no protest from myself. Just heard the team had but I told them it is not what we do. We are champions, we move on. End of!"

So what's happening at Mercedes? They had just won their third successive world championship for constructors, but that was all people wanted to know all weekend.

Is their reigning champion losing it, as the man he has so often vanquished maintains a steely grip?

We have four races left in which to find the answers, after Suzuka threw up so much to question.

Hamilton has a strong record in Austin, and a poem of his own that he holds dear: Maya Angelou's emotive Still I Rise.

Whether he can do it a third successive time is but one of the fascinations that lie ahead in the four races that remain to decide which of them is crowned the 2016 world champion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2016, with the headline 'Nico calm under pressure while Lewis must rise again'. Print Edition | Subscribe