F1 season opener

Rosberg vows to fight three-time champion Hamilton all the way

Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton (right) and Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg encountered a symbol of their team's sporting history - a Mercedes-Benz SSK - in Germany last week.
Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton (right) and Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg encountered a symbol of their team's sporting history - a Mercedes-Benz SSK - in Germany last week.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The battle between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg begins again in Melbourne, underpinning the first Formula One season with 21 races

MELBOURNE • A new qualifying format, restrictions on radio communications, coupled with fresh faces, a new team, and a record 21 races.

This year's Formula One season, the longest yet, is supposedly in for a shake-up. And no one is hoping to shake the order up more than Nico Rosberg, who has finished second to team-mate Lewis Hamilton in the last two seasons.

Only last week, Hamilton, referring to their age gap, had told Rosberg: "You're only six months behind me."

 

The truth is, Rosberg has been behind Hamilton in far more than just age. Separating the pair are three world titles, a 49-22 margin in career poles, and a range of other statistics, which for the German, probably make for painful reading.

But Rosberg, second to the Briton over the last two years, has vowed to take the fight to his team-mate this term.

"I look forward to this battle with the world champion," he said, heading into Melbourne.

"He has beaten me for the past two years and he is the benchmark. That is what I am going for and trust me, I will be fighting all the way."

Besides finally getting one over his bitter rival Hamilton, the German has extra incentive to get the job done this term as his Mercedes contract expires at the end of the season.

"I'd probably be looking over my shoulder a little bit if I was Rosberg," 1996 world champion Damon Hill, now a Sky television pundit, told reporters when asked to discuss the sport's rising stars.

Rosberg's bid to emulate the success of his father Keke, the 1982 F1 world champion, has been boosted by Mercedes' pledge to allow their drivers more freedom to race each other this season, with no team orders from the pit wall.

Part of that is down to the cut in radio communications, which could work in Rosberg's favour too as decisions are taken out of the data-crunching teams' hands and handed over to the drivers.

"Strategy, engine-mode deployment, tyre choices, even up to a point pit stops (as well), a lot will be down to the driver to decide," Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said on Autosport.com.

"Things will be less optimised by algorithms and engineers, and it will give room for error."

Of course, whether Rosberg makes the most of this opportunity also depends on whether he makes the wisest choices.

His frustration has often gotten the better of him - from Spa in in 2014 when he ran into the back of Hamilton's car, ending the Briton's race; to Monaco the same year when he won pole after blocking Hamilton's attempt to improve on his time; to last year's "Capgate" incident in Austin - leading to questions about his temperament.

Some believe Rosberg could be buoyed by momentum, having claimed the last six poles and won the last three races. During pre-season testing in Barcelona earlier this month, he was quicker than Hamilton and even topped the time sheets on the opening day.

Alan Baldwin, the Reuters F1 correspondent, even suggested that "Rosberg... could be on the cusp of something remarkable if he can pick up where he left off in Abu Dhabi last November".

But other pundits have also pointed out that each of those victories came after Hamilton had already sealed the drivers' championship in the United States. Although former racer and Sky TV commentator Martin Brundle hinted that taking his foot off the pedal could come back to haunt Hamilton.

"I believe he gave Rosberg a confidence and a self-belief that he didn't ought to be letting him have," said Brundle of those last three races.

Perhaps another unexpected source of "help" to Rosberg could be Hamilton's celebrity lifestyle.

Experts have questioned the British star's glitzy, globe-trotting ways of late, for instance, after completing huge amounts of mileage in the first pre-season test in Barcelona on the Thursday, he flew to Los Angeles for an Oscars party before testing resumed on Tuesday.

"It seems crazy to question whether Lewis can win another title, given that he's won the last two," former racer turned television pundit David Coulthard told British reporters. "But you have to ask where his energy is going...We all know it's not easy jumping on and off aircraft. Is this the year that's going to take it's toll?"

However, Hamilton is a formidable racer and adversary and it is this that Rosberg needs to overcome above all else. Coulthard pointed out: "Nico needs to be consistently outpacing Lewis in qualifying but he also has to do the wheel-to-wheel stuff, and that is where Lewis has been exceptional."

Indeed. As Red Bull chief Christian Horner put it: "The cream always does rise to the top."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2016, with the headline 'Rosberg vows to fight Hamilton all the way'. Print Edition | Subscribe