In The Driver's Seat

About-turn in fortunes but folly to discount Rosberg's chances

As the F1 circus prepares for its four-week summer break, it's an appropriate time to take stock of the season thus far.

With Lewis Hamilton on the rampage, it's hard to remember that it was Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg who looked so dominant in the early going. His four wins in the first four races followed three victories at the end of 2015, and despite Hamilton's obvious mechanical problems, prompted some to believe that three world championship titles had sated the Briton's hunger.

How wrong could they be.

In the last seven races, Hamilton has won six times, overtaking Rosberg's tally of five, and turning what was once a 43-point deficit into a 19-point lead.

Doing that, especially after the early-season troubles and then the crushing disappointment in Baku in June, has required all the fortitude Hamilton can muster. Just as it will require everything that Rosberg can summon for him to bounce back.

Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton (left) and Nico Rosberg with their garage personnel after the German Grand Prix in Hockenheim. The German is upset with his poor race start, which cost him a podium spot, but believes he can reel his team-mate in with nine races to go. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

"Nineteen points is not tough at all," the German said of the deficit after finishing fourth on his home turf, behind his rampant team-mate and the Red Bull duo. "Tough is losing the race in the way I did today. That's very tough, and it's going to take some time to digest in the coming days."

Yet the fascinating thing is how both of these top-line sportsmen seem able to generate what they need to come back stronger than ever from adversity. Hamilton might be on top right now, but equally, you under-estimate Rosberg at your peril.

For sure a Mercedes will power the 2016 world champion - but such is the battle between Hamilton and Rosberg that it is likely to take many more races before his identity becomes apparent.

Against that backdrop, the battle between Red Bull and Ferrari is just as intriguing.

Ferrari began the year full of hope, and should have won the opening race in Australia had they employed better strategy. But since then they have never really looked like winning, as they did three times in 2015.

Red Bull, by contrast, were struggling, a clear third-best team overall. But recently they have turned a big corner. They won with Max Verstappen when the Mercedes drivers collided in Spain, and they should have won in Monaco, and ever since they have been tough competition for Ferrari. Having outscored the Scuderia in the last four races, they took over second place in the constructors' championship in Germany.

"Two weekends in a row now it's a podium and, for the team, we're now second in the constructors' (race), so I think we can be really proud to split the Mercedes (cars) today," Daniel Ricciardo said after chasing Hamilton home at Hockenheim.

"It's a really good effort. We really capitalised on a good day. We had a good car. Obviously we couldn't win, but second and third isn't too bad."

These are thus hard days for F1's oldest team, whose parting of the ways with talented technical director James Allison after the recent Hungarian GP is seen as a barometer of their distress.

President Sergio Marchionne is an industry man bent on making Ferrari the major force once again, but road car mavens do not always make the best men to run racing teams. How Ferrari react and what they can achieve in the second half of the season - especially on their home ground at Monza where the tifosi have the highest expectations - will be but one of the fascinating aspects that lie ahead.

"We're usually faster in the race than we are in qualifying, but this wasn't the case today," Sebastian Vettel said on Sunday.

"We were sliding around too much and this affected the tyres as well. Fifth and sixth place was the best we could do, but we obviously can't accept that."

Williams are under threat from Force India, Toro Rosso from the emergent McLaren-Honda alliance.

And there are signs of common sense from the governors of the sport: the radio communication rules have been relaxed, in accordance with the wishes of teams and fans; the controversial halo awaits further development; and there will be no more safety car starts when tracks are wet - instead drivers will do recce laps to see where the water is worse, and will then make standing starts from the grid in the old-fashioned - and much more satisfying - manner.

The grand, it seems, will remain in grand prix racing.

These are all good reasons to look forward to what lies ahead in the sport's immediate future. And it's worth repeating the plaudits that are due to Mercedes for letting their drivers race one another.

For sure a Mercedes will power the 2016 world champion - but such is the battle between Hamilton and Rosberg that it is likely to take many more races before his identity becomes apparent.

Is F1 really so boring, as some like to believe?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2016, with the headline 'About-turn in fortunes but folly to discount Rosberg's chances'. Print Edition | Subscribe