The titanic title fight of 2014 between Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg was often a case of the Briton bouncing back from misfortune in the standings and overhauling Rosberg in race trim. Rosberg won five races in 2014 but there were typically mitigating circumstances to go with the majority, if not all, of those wins, derived from either a Hamilton mistake or reliability issue. When Rosberg did have an advantage he very rarely made it stick or was outmanoeuvred on-track by Hamilton; when Rosberg was behind, he remained behind. It was this year-long theme which meant that Hamilton ended the year as the deserving Champion.
Such a trend appeared to continue into 2015, with Hamilton winning three from four prior to Rosberg’s return to the top step in Spain. Two more wins have followed for Rosberg: the first a fortunate triumph after being out-classed all weekend in Monaco, but his victory in Austria was about his most assured performance since Mercedes emerged as the front runner when Formula 1 switched to V6 power units.
In Austria, it was only in Q3 where Hamilton wrestled the upper hand, courtesy of a quicker opening lap which consequently forced Rosberg to push too hard on his final flying lap. Rounding Turn 8 Rosberg was matching Hamilton’s benchmark and thus needed to take a risk in order to post a quicker time, which he was unable to do after slipping marginally wide at Turn 8 before going off track completely at Turn 9.
Rosberg’s task was to get ahead of Hamilton in the race and he received a helping hand when his team-mate made a slow start, which Hamilton pinned to certain settings, enabling Rosberg to claim the lead into the uphill right-hander of Turn 1. Yet his task was far from over, as the nature of the Red Bull Ring allows for opportunities into Turn 2 and 3. Rosberg discovered this in 2014, when he moved from third to second at the expense of Williams' Valtteri Bottas into Turn 1, only for the Finn to re-claim the position on the approach to Turn 2.
This year, Hamilton emerged from Turn 1 latched to the rear of Rosberg but the German defended the inside line in almost-perfect fashion, running slightly too deep but not enough to compromise himself nor allow Hamilton a sniff of a chance. Rosberg used a similar approach on the run down to Turn 3, staying far enough to the right of the circuit to force Hamilton left, after which the Safety Car was deployed following the accident between Kimi Räikkönen and Fernando Alonso. It wasn’t just this approach to his race craft which was eye-catching, but that he remained composed under such pressure. Last year in Russia, Rosberg claimed the lead off the line but misjudged his braking for Turn 2, locked both tyres and sailed straight on, costing himself a shot at victory and swinging the pendulum towards Hamilton, who was in the midst of a successful streak.
Rosberg consequently established a lead of over a second as soon as the Safety Car came back in – thus clearing DRS range – and incrementally increased that advantage across the stint on Option tyres, typically in the middle sector, where Rosberg appeared to hold much of the pace difference to Hamilton. Pirelli's assertion of a one-stop strategy proved correct, meaning that the stops, and laps around them, would be crucial. Hamilton's in-laps were slightly quicker, aided by a mistake at Turn 2 for Rosberg, though he still had to recover a 2.2 second deficit.
Rosberg's stop was quicker (half a second) but crucially he put the hammer down on his out laps, smashing the fastest laps of the race with a 1:11.2 followed by a 1:11.6 to ensure that when Hamilton emerged from the pit lane two laps later, he radioed Mercedes to ask in puzzlement how Rosberg had built up a lead of 4.3 seconds.
Hamilton’s hopes of challenging were dented by his five second penalty, but Rosberg’s laps after the pit stop were reminiscent of the great drivers – such as Michael Schumacher – who knew how crucial it was to push at those precise moments. Rosberg was just as assured on the Prime tyres as he was the Options, meaning that there was no capacity for Hamilton to try and slice the gap to force Rosberg into an error – such as in Italy last year.
Rosberg duly cruised to the line, albeit via some agitated comments regarding tyre vibration, to collect a third win from four and close the gap in the title race to 10 points. Rarely, if ever, has Rosberg beaten Hamilton so assuredly when faced with a level playing field. Hamilton was forever chasing a moving target which he had no answer to, a situation the World Champion has not found himself in since being paired with Rosberg.
This isn’t to say that the momentum is with Rosberg, for over the last four race weekends Hamilton and Rosberg have both had the pace advantage on two occasions each, it’s just that for Rosberg a showing such as in Austria is uncommon. He never looked like being beaten, whereas when Hamilton was behind in 2014 it was typically a case of when, not if. Drivers dislike talking about momentum and often the advantage swings between the drivers, with such minute differences in feel and confidence giving one or other the slight benefit. This is a battle which has always been dealt in tenths of a second – this isn’t a 1% difference deciding races, but sometimes 0.1% or even less. However, Rosberg has re-discovered whatever it was that made him look lost during the initial phase of the season.
After a difficult start to 2015, Rosberg has emerged as a credible and serious threat to Hamilton for this year’s championship.