We're now into the second half of the Formula 1 World Championship and it's showtime for Nico Rosberg's title aspirations, says Charles Bradley.
And so to Spa. Nestled in Belgium's Ardennes forest, this majestic, all-time classic racetrack simply oozes Formula 1 history – most recently last year’s incendiary collision between Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
“Nico hit me, Nico’s hit me!” Hamilton’s incredulous cry on the radio lingers in the memory 12 months on. The blue touch paper was lit that day.
Hamilton: indignant – he believed he was a victim of foul play, just as he'd thought in Monaco, and went on record as saying it was “do or die” after that.
Rosberg: indignity – many who gave him the benefit of the doubt for that Q3 mishap in Monte Carlo suddenly changed their mind, and maybe he really could be ‘Nasty Nico’ after all. The boos on the podium said it all.
It was a seminal moment, followed by a hot streak of five victories by Hamilton (although Rosberg was cruelly banjaxed by that weird Singapore steering column/electrical failure) that sealed the Briton’s second world title.
Lewis fed on his frustration, channeling a negative into a positive, while Nico wore that loss of dignity like an ill-fitting jerkin – he looked uncomfortable and error-ridden until the final two races of the season, when his mojo appeared to return.
Time to strike back, Nico
Following the mid-season break, it’s crucial for the World Championship fight that Rosberg doesn’t haemorrhage any more ground to Hamilton – and begins to turn things around.
Sure, it would have been a different story had Rosberg not punctured a rear tyre against the front wing of Daniel Ricciardo in Budapest (oh, the irony). But instead of taking the points lead, as he seemed poised to do, he lags 21 in arrears.
He needs the sort of performance like he produced at Interlagos last year, exerting the kind of pressure on Hamilton that will force mistakes – as Lewis made on raceday there while giving chase.
Rosberg has proved he’s got what it takes to rival Hamilton, and now has the greatest stage of all – Spa-Francorchamps – to show he can defeat him. Nico beat Lewis to pole by a fifth of a second last year, only to fluff his start and drop to third – behind Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.
He can rely only upon himself to swing the Mercedes pendulum back in his favour, as Hamilton made plenty of unforced errors in Hungary and still managed to extend his advantage.
Jokers in the pack?
Vettel again is the wildcard here: buoyed by his recent victory in Hungary, he will have enjoyed his summer break more than anyone. Then you have Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari, with some payback due, I think, to the faith of Maurizio Arrivabene in awarding him with a 2016 contract that some think is more deserving of Valtteri Bottas or Nico Hulkenberg.
Kimi is often at his best around Spa, so any slip-up by either of the Mercedes drivers will be punished almost as harshly as it was at the Hungaroring.
And while the Renault-powered cars get written-off at this power track, a super-skinny aero setup last year meant the Red Bulls were actually quick in a straightline last year – and Daniel Ricciardo drove his like a demon 12 months ago for a famous victory.
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