Nico Rosberg learns the most valuable lesson all champions must know
The collision which eliminated both Mercedes cars from the Spanish Grand Prix goes down as a 'racing incident' even though both sides maintain thei...
The collision which eliminated both Mercedes cars from the Spanish Grand Prix goes down as a 'racing incident' even though both sides maintain their own views, as do fans. Team boss Toto Wolff admitted that inside the team there are different opinions.
But Rosberg did show yesterday that he has learned the most valuable lesson of champions, which is that you don't give anything away to the opposition. In the past he did; today he's learned how important it is to close down the avenues.
I had a strange conversation with him about this topic on Thursday afternoon in Barcelona, which proved to be quite prophetic. I was observing that it is one thing to perform at your best every week on a consistent basis, but the key to being champion is to minimise the chances you give to the opposition; don't give anything away. He didn't want to engage, made out that he didn't understand the question, but he understood it well enough and on Sunday he showed how much he has progressed in this 'intangible' area of the sport.
On Saturday he couldn't match Lewis Hamilton's qualifying pace; it's the third time out of three in a straight fight in Q3 that he's been edged by the champion. He was disappointed but he knew that this was something to be accepted, rather than dwelt upon. But on Sunday he responded, fought back into Turn 1 and took the lead at the start, as he has now done every time they've started alongside each other this season.
Then when he realised that he had a problem on the engine modes and quickly dialled in changes to the steering wheel, he also had the presence of mind to see Hamilton making his move down the inside and closed the door on him. He has said openly since that he wanted to send Hamilton a message that he will not yield, as he has done in the past.
The stewards called it as a racing incident, the team has bought that and decided to move on. Wolff was more conciliatory than after the pair collided in Spa 2014, when he said that if it happened again they'd look at replacing them. But that's because they have won everything since, including two drivers and teams championships. This was a bad day for the team members in Brackley and Brixworth, who worked hard to prepare the cars, but not the end of the world from Mercedes' point of view.
The take-home from Sunday's incident from Hamilton's point of view is that Rosberg is a different competitor from before and he's going to have to street-fight him to wrestle the 2016 championship out of his clutches.
The Schumacher/Ferrari mantra: Never give anything away
Sometimes Hamilton will be faster than Rosberg; that's a given with a team mate who is as talented as the Englishman. After humiliating him in Austin last year, Hamilton breathed out and gave Rosberg a chance to rebuild. It was a terrible mistake. The German has taken that opportunity and hasn't lost a race to him since.
Looking back at the last two title battles with Hamilton, Rosberg was beaten fair and square both times. But bear in mind that Hamilton was already a veteran of four title battles when the 2014 campaign began. He had fought in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2012 before the showdown with his team mate in 2014. That is a lot of experience of something you cannot learn unless you go through it personally. In contrast 2014 was Rosberg's first title battle and last year was his second. This year, he is showing that he's learned a great deal from those experiences.
The key is in not giving anything away to the opposition.
Think of a football team. If the midfield is strong you control 60% of the possession in the game, if the strikers are consistent you will score goals. But you only win the match if the defence and the goalkeeper do their job. The team as a whole does not give anything away to the opposition.
This is what has happend to Rosberg this year, he's raised his game as a driver a fraction, but he's raised his game as a competitor a lot. The setbacks of losing face at Spa in 2014 and then more painfully at Austin last year have proved lessons for the German and he is now a more formidable competitor.
There are very few people who know what it takes to win in F1 and the most eloquent explanation of this crucial aspect of being a champion was articulated by Ross Brawn, in an interview I did with him for one of the two books I wrote with and about Michael Schumacher.
"Every last detail is critical. It’s very rare in modern Formula 1 to come up with a dramatic new concept or idea, which will give you a step change in performance. So you cannot give anything away. You cannot be weak in the ‘tangibles’, like design of the car, and you cannot be weak in the ‘intangibles’ like the competitive attitude or interpretation of the rules.
"You have to push everything to the limit. Unintentionally sometimes you go over the limit either in reliability or in interpretation of a regulation. You have to force the limits in all the areas and help everyone in the team realise that they have to reach limits. Each department has to be up against the boundaries of what it can achieve all the time. And by doing that you can get a competitive package, but it is not just about performance, it’s reliability too; nothing must be too much trouble. Whatever you felt you could achieve you’ve then got to go out and find another ten per cent."
That was his answer to the question of how the Ferrari team, of which he was technical director and Schumacher the driver, achieved so much success. It came down from Jean Todt, the team principal, who refused to give an inch in any situation.
And the same holds true today of Mercedes. And the driver who is getting all the tangibles and intangibles right is Rosberg. Hamilton has had his technical issues, but Rosberg had already beaten him into Turn 1 in Australia. Same in Bahrain.
Reliability has been an issue this year for Hamilton, but it hasn't stopped him scoring points at each race; he has not had a technical retirement. The last Mercedes technical retirement was Rosberg's in Russia last year.
New contract for Rosberg
Nico doesn't like talking in public and with the media about his contractual situation. But this weekend he did say something very interesting about his contractual situation with Mercedes and what might happen next. He equivocated when asked about it and in leaving a big gap between the lines, invited everyone to read between them.
"Of course I'm in an interesting situation, I just want to see what the future will be. Let's see. It's not something I'm focussing on at the moment. It's early days."
Rosberg is in a strong position, he can speak to Ferrari, if he wants to and even if he doesn't go there, it will raise his price with Mercedes. That would be normal good practice. It's unlikely he would want to leave Mercedes, as he has so much invested there.
He tends to confirm his contracts earlier in the season than some drivers, the last renewal was done in May 2013 and it wouldn't have surprised me to see him and Mercedes announcing a renewal in Monaco the week after next. Whether the incident of Sunday might change that, who knows.But equally he can take his time. And if that announcement doesn't come soon, then there is clearly more of a discussion being had.
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