For the last two seasons, Mercedes Formula 1 teammates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg have been bitter rivals. With the help of their former karting team boss, Oleg Karpov looks back to a time when that wasn't the case.
A veritable household name when it comes to Italian karting, Dino Chiesa, who serves as the current head of karting manufacturer CRG's factory racing programme, has been filling up trophy cabinets for almost two decades.
And it was CRG that Chiesa worked at the end of last century when the offer came for him to run a separate team for two of karting's rising stars – one Nico Rosberg, the son of 1982 Formula 1 champion Keke, and one Lewis Hamilton.
“I first met Nico at the end of 1997,” Chiesa recalled, sitting in his office chair in CRG's factory, located near Lonato del Garda.
“I ran CRG at that time - and I met him because his father was friends was Domingos Piedade, then president of AMG. It was the time when Nico had to move from France to Italy to start racing internationally and Domingos told them: 'Listen, you have only one place to go, let me call Dino.'
Soon enough, Rosberg would join CRG, racing for the Italian manufacturer for two seasons in 1998 and 1999.
“In the end of 1999, Keke – at that time the manager of McLaren's [Mika] Hakkinen, asked me whether I would want to build a team separate to CRG, for two to three seasons, with Lewis – already a McLaren driver - and Nico."
As a result, the MBM team was born, the name having stood for Mercedes-Benz-McLaren. It still was a fully-fledged factory CRG operation, but was a different approach, focussing on just the two drivers specifically instead of adopting a bigger, more traditional line-up.
In comes Lewis
Chiesa admitted that, when Lewis had first joined his team, he wasn't fully aware of the Briton's sheer potential: “We didn't know that much about him – we knew that he was already under McLaren's wing, that he did well in English championships, that he was obviously talented.
"But we had never seen him at the track because he hadn't yet come to Europe."
However, getting to run Hamilton has left an impression on the Italian team boss: “He came from nowhere – had little money in his pocket, had to do it all through talent. But, for sure, he is one of the most talented drivers in the world.
“He had no problem getting speed in any race, with any material. Sometimes, he didn't have the best material - but two tenths off, because of the material, and he would still manage to win the race.”
Back in 2014, before the two past world championships were settled in Lewis' favour, the Briton insinuated quite plainly that he was “hungrier” for success than Nico, because of the duo's radically different backgrounds.
But, as Chiesa recalled, that did not stop them from getting along back in the day – and, in fact, in some ways contributed towards the friendship.
“Don't forget – Nico lived in Monaco, he had no real normal life, not a lot of friends,” Chiesa said. “He'd come to the race weekend, to the track, to have fun with Lewis – who was from the outskirts of Stevenage and knew life, knew how to have fun.
“Lewis was, in some ways, a teacher of Nico's.”
That said, Chiesa insisted that Rosberg's background in no way affected how the German carried himself – or how he worked.
“He's a good guy. Having grown up in Monaco, it made no difference to him, he doesn't think: 'I am rich, I can do what I want.'
“He was very focussed in his work, he loves doing it - he doesn't care about the money, very grounded, just a really normal kid.”
Likewise, Chiesa reckoned that Hamilton's famous off-track lifestyle and persona had little to no impact on his ability to win.
“I think Lewis is a bit bipolar, he has two personalities. Out of the racing weekend, he's a little bit crazy, an emotional guy - but I think when the free practice starts on Friday morning and until the chequered flag on Sunday, he's a real professional, he just doesn't do anything wrong.
“He, like, switches on and off from Friday to Sunday - and on Sunday night, he starts again with the festivities until the next race. But he gets it done.”
As Chiesa remembers, both Keke Rosberg and Anthony Hamilton were ever-present throughout their sons' two-year stint with the team.
“I think all four were quite close – they slept in the same hotel, drove around in the same rental car. [Keke and Anthony] never had arguments, because both, I think, already knew their sons were destined for Formula 1.
“Anthony, when he first came to the first races - when I had already fielded Nico for two years - he had a little bit of doubt about the kart, that maybe I would give better material to Nico.
“But in karting you just can't do that - and the size and the weight of both Lewis and Nico was very similar. So any time I changed the kart during the free practice, they could see that it was the same for both.
"[Anthony] asked me some questions in the beginning, but he then never asked me again for the two seasons. Maybe because Lewis was winning and that's how he was sure the kart was good.
“Keke - he only ever had problems with his son, just fighting about driving mistakes or something. But that's normal. Anthony, of course, couldn't say much to Lewis cause he was never a driver himself - but when Keke said something, the boys couldn't say no because he was an F1 world champion.”
The relationship between Hamilton and Rosberg has become famously strained during the two seasons of Mercedes dominance, with points of contention ranging from the decisive Spa collision in 2014 to the passive-aggressive cap throwing last year in Austin.
But their former karting boss finds it hard to believe that the duo no longer get on.
“Are they still friends? You know better than I do, probably. It sure looks like they aren't anymore – but I think they still are.
“Together from 2000 for 15 years in this same world, same life – it's hard to be against one another. They can't be enemies."
He subsequently went on to recall the time when his two drivers trashed their hotel room in Oschersleben.
“It was the last race of the European championship – which Lewis had already won. They nearly destroyed their room, they put the mattress out of the window. The reception guys called me in the middle of the night and I had to hide that fact from their dads, cause they'd kill me if they knew.
“But all that time, Lewis and Nico slept in the same room. That is why I think they're still friends - if you stay for two years together in the same room when you are younger, you will never forget that. It's kind of like that when you serve in the army and you don't forget your friends from the army.”
Can Nico beat Lewis?
Hamilton's dominant 2015 campaign raised some serious doubts over whether Rosberg could ever reliably match his teammate – and while the German quelled some of those fears with a three-race winning streak in the end, it's still up for debate whether he is capable of beating Hamilton to the title.
And this is a query Chiesa himself has no definite answer to. “It's a question mark,” he said.
“I think if Nico gets everything perfect, he can beat Lewis. If we go back to karting, where they did around 30 races, I believe that Nico, in qualifying, beat Lewis 20 to 10... or even 22 to 8.
“But Lewis won more races. He's more aggressive, more all-or-nothing. Nico is the kind of driver who's okay with finishing second to score points for the championship – but Lewis doesn't really care about the championship, he cares about every single race.
“The media sometimes says that Nico is more fragile, but that's not true – he's as strong in the head as Lewis. So I think he can win the championship.”
But while it's the rivalry between Hamilton and Rosberg that gets the most attention, Chiesa believes that, instead, their teamwork has been crucial to Mercedes' successes.
“I know it's the best car at the moment and it's easier for both to win races, but I think the work Nico and Lewis do together is better than that of any other drivers in any other team. They're the perfect pairing.
“Lewis gives you the limit immediately - Nico arrives there a little bit later, but Nico can work a lot to understand if that's really the limit or if there's more pace that can be added.
“Having Nico without Lewis or Lewis without Nico, Mercedes would not be as strong as it is now. At least, that's what I saw in karting - they helped each other and we won a lot of races, because we had two very good drivers who together were stronger than they were separately.”
Translation by Valentin Khorounzhiy