Analysis: Qualifying nerve the key for Rosberg fightback against Hamilton
There is no getting away from the fact that Nico Rosberg has not done as good a job as Lewis Hamilton so far this season.
There is no getting away from the fact that Nico Rosberg has not done as good a job as Lewis Hamilton so far this season. Between this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix and the summer break, Rosberg has to start to turn the tide against his Mercedes team-mate and channel the spirit of the same early summer period last year, where he did his best work.
Rosberg acknowledged the fact today in Barcelona as he prepares to once again try to take the fight to Hamilton. The German said that his battling race in Bahrain has given him a boost but he also admitted that mistakes have been made over the opening rounds
"[Bahrain] felt like a good race," he said. "I felt comfortable in the car, you know, and of course it’s enjoyable to attack like that and pass the red cars so for sure it’s given me a boost coming here to Barcelona.
"It’s just a matter of maximizing the weekends. It’s not really come together until now. Parts have gone well but other parts not so well and I just need to put it all together and of course I’ll start to try and do that from here onwards."
Looking back at how Rosberg's opening salvoes this season have failed to hit the mark, it's clear that one of the areas in which he must rediscover form is qualifying.
The team usually does two runs in the final part of qualifying, with the final one supposed to be the decider for the grid slot. But statistical analysis shows that it is the first run in Q3 which sets the tone with this pair.
Only twice last season (Silverstone and Russia) was the fastest first run in Q3 overturned – clearly it's a very significant factor in qualifying momentum.
This was Hamilton's weakness last season; a poor first run would put pressure on him for the second, whereas Rosberg had the provisional pole with his 'banker' lap and then would confirm it.
This year Hamilton has had the nerve in Q3 and it's meant that Rosberg has yet to get on the front foot against him.
"Qualifying has picked up a little," Hamilton said today. "I'm just trying to drive better, be less erratic, be a bit calmer when I do my laps.
"I've been a little bit more diligent in understanding the switch changes and all the different things you do throughout a lap."
Where has Hamilton gained?
Although insiders say that there is no obvious technical reason why Rosberg should be struggling this year compared to Hamilton in qualifying, three things have changed compared to his 'purple patch' in summer 2014.
The first is that advice via team radio has been banned. This came in towards the end of last season and clearly affected Rosberg more than Hamilton, as Rosberg had become used to 'fine-tuning' his car and his driving via coaching tips from engineer Tony Ross, while out on track.
The second is that Pirelli has changed the rear tyre construction to something more stable and robust. This is primarily aimed at better tyre life in long race runs, but it may play a small part in making Hamilton feel the rear end grip.
The largest change is in brakes: Hamilton has changed his brake materials from a combination of Carbone Industrie on the front and Brembo on the rear to Carbone Industrie all round. Braking has always been one of the key areas where Hamilton finds his speed and confidence under braking is one of the keys to that; he hits the brakes very hard initially and then gains valuable time in the release of the brake to the corner entry phase.
He has yet to put a foot wrong in qualifying, so it is is for Rosberg to raise his game in that area.
There were signs in Bahrain that Rosberg was being over analytical too. He admitted to making a mistake in Q2, not pushing the set of tyres the rules say he would start the race with. But it meant he didn't find the limit on that important run and he never got on level terms with wither Hamilton or Vettel from there.
What Rosberg needs to do
Let's look more closely at the analysis, together with our colleague Will Saunders, who has prepared the data sets.
This season, Hamilton has a perfect record of four consecutive pole positions, whilst Rosberg has struggled comparatively – with two second place starts and two thirds to his name.
However, in the period from the Spanish GP to the summer break in 2014, Rosberg's average qualifying position was 1.43 - compared to Hamilton's average grid slot of 8.66. From Monaco to Monza, Rosberg outqualified Hamilton at seven consecutive races.
Not only did his qualifying performances give Rosberg crucial track position over Hamilton and a foundation from which he could go on to outscore his team-mate, it also afforded him an objective measure by which he consistently outperformed Hamilton.
If Rosberg is to take the fight to Hamilton he needs to make the best use of his strongest assets, and qualifying is certainly one area in which he held a tangible performance advantage over Hamilton at the corresponding upcoming races last season as the tables above illustrate.
Get Inside Hamilton's Head
Before Monaco last year Hamilton headed Rosberg 4-1 in qualifying and 4-1 in race wins. It was Rosberg's now infamous trip down the Mirabeau escape road that acted as a catalyst for a change of fortunes, as the public fallout from Monaco helped knock Hamilton's rhythm to such an extent that he committed uncharacteristic errors in qualifying in the Austrian and British GPs.
Rosberg knows that Hamilton's mood is inextricably tied to his performance, so it's imperative that he finds a way to break the confident aura surrounding Hamilton - even if it means getting his hands a little dirty.
Reliability is still key
The brake issues at the end of the Bahrain GP for both Mercedes together with a Mercedes engine failure on a Force India car in China are reminders that reliability is not to be taken for granted.
Last season it was a key factor in getting Rosberg into the game. Hamilton's retirement in the opening race gave Rosberg a 25-point headstart in the championship, and the Briton's subsequent ERS failure while battling for the lead in Canada, brake failure in qualifying in Germany and turbo failure in qualifying in Hungary gave Rosberg ample opportunity to replenish his championship advantage.
By the summer break both Mercedes drivers had suffered six mechanical failures during the season, but Hamilton had endured four competitive session (qualifying and race) failures to Rosberg's three. Crucially, only one of Rosberg's failures caused a retirement (Silverstone) and he never hit trouble in qualifying, allowing him to continue to collect points while bearing his 'share' of the reliability issues.
The Mercedes' works teams qualifying and race reliability has been far more robust in 2015 (Bahrain braking and Hamilton's Malaysia FP1 engine failure the sole issues to date).
Avoid dropping points behind the Ferraris
In 2014 the Mercedes was the clear class of the field, especially during the early part of the season, and losing to Hamilton almost invariably meant finishing second and dropping just 7 points. This year the challenge from Ferrari has seen them on the podium at every race and twice on the front row of the grid; Rosberg finish third behind them in Malaysia and Bahrain, dropping his average finishing position from 1.75 at the opening four races in 2014 to 2.5 at the first four rounds this term.
Rosberg only won one of the opening four races last season, but he was able to finish second in the other three - collecting 13 more points from the same period in the process.
Rosberg's deficit to his tally at this time last year looks daunting in its own right, but the gap is compounded by Hamilton's 18-point improvement. It will take more than third or fourth places to eat into Hamilton's 27-point lead, so staying ahead of the resurgent Vettel and Raikkonen is crucial for Rosberg's championship chances.
At less than a quarter of the way through the season, it's still far too early to raise the white flag.
The points totals may look very different to this time in 2014, but that was more due to the anomaly of Hamilton's retirement in Melbourne than any particularly stellar performances from Rosberg. Irrespective of the standings, Hamilton was clearly the quicker Mercedes driver through the early-season flyaway rounds in 2014.
In 2013, Hamilton scored 50 points to Rosberg's 12 through the same sequence of races, so Hamilton has comfortably outperformed Rosberg over the opening four races during each of their three seasons as teammates.
On the plus side for Rosberg, his average qualifying position has improved from the same period last year (2.5 up from 2.75), whilst the average qualifying gap (+0.440 down from +0.497) and the average race finish gap (+2.692 down from +12.361) have both diminished in Rosberg's favour.
Indeed, in 2014 it was only from Monaco onwards that Rosberg started to genuinely perform on the same level as Hamilton. Up to that point it had been as though he was keeping the championship lead warm, and it was only once Hamilton wrested it back that Rosbeg's performance improved drastically.
As impressive as Hamilton's opening salvo has been, Rosberg should consider that to date we’ve seen a very small sample size of races where Hamilton has traditionally been strong - and a sequence of circuits at which Rosberg outscored Hamilton on poles, wins and points in 2014 is just around the corner.Additional reporting and data: Will Saunders
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Analysis: Qualifying nerve the key for Rosberg fightback against Hamilton
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