The past few weeks have not been good for Nico Rosberg. The German may have a larger World Championship lead than he did ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix, but psychologically something seems amiss. Nico is perhaps beginning to feel the toll of his first F1 title battle.
Early in the season the German looked the mentally stronger of the two Mercedes drivers, particularly after ending Lewis Hamilton’s four-race winning streak by triumphing in Monaco. Nico seemed to be maximising what he had at his disposal while Lewis, though certainly performing very well, was not quite doing the same. His mistakes in qualifying at Silverstone and the Red Bull Ring were proof of that.
But it seems that, since F1 returned from its summer break, Rosberg is no longer the same driver he was earlier in the season. His clumsy coming-together with Hamilton in Belgium could have cost him dear; in fact it was Lewis who suffered on-track, though Nico later took the brunt of the flak post-race from both his team and the sport’s fans.
Let’s not indulge in conspiracy theories. Every grand prix driver asked about the Spa clash has agreed that Nico could not have carried out such a manoeuvre on purpose; they are the ones who drive the cars and only they can make that call. In reality, it was an error borne out of frustration at losing the lead on lap one.
Some felt Nico had gotten away with it by finishing second while Hamilton ultimately limped into a late retirement. But while that was the case in terms of World Championship points, Belgium may end up being regarded as watershed moment for the German, who received a chorus of boos on the podium.
The look on Rosberg's face showed that he was clearly affected by the reaction he received. Perhaps the ticket-buying fans at Spa were within their rights to express their displeasure, but when Nico received the same treatment in Italy after driving a fair race it must have hurt all the more. Rather than booing him for doing something wrong, it now seemed that people simply didn’t like him.
"It is not nice, but what can I say?" said Rosberg after Monza.
"I hope that with time they forgive and forget - that will be great. And I have apologised, I cannot do anything more than that. The team deserves to put all the recent stuff behind us and move forward. Spa is behind me, I put it behind me before the weekend, today's race just came down to a mistake."
After Spa he was also publicly admonished by the Mercedes team, forced to issue a grovelling apology, and handed a significant fine. This represented another significant blow. It is quite unique to see a driver fighting for a World Championship forced to cede so much psychological ground.
And then came Monza, where he was gifted the lead early only to be reeled in by Hamilton. He twice made a mistake and went straight on at the first corner, the second of which allowed Lewis to assume the lead. It was not quite as spectacular a breakdown as Mike Hakkinen's spin followed by tears in the bushes in 1999, but Nico still appeared bruised by the race.
"Lewis was just quick coming from behind so I needed to up my pace as a result and I just went into a mistake - it was very bad. And that lost me the lead in the end, so it's definitely very disappointing from that point of view," Rosberg said afterwards. Again, his words do not make him sound like a man confident of his ability to win this title.
The idea that his errors in Italy, which helped Hamilton take the win, were in any way intentional is also extremely far fetched. Does anyone really believe that Mercedes, a major international car manufacturer whose race team is run by intelligent men such as Toto Wolff and Paddy Lowe, would risk everything they have worked for in F1 by rigging a race in such a blatant manner? Nico’s errors were mistakes made by a driver coming under increasing pressure from behind.
And remember, this is all new territory for Rosberg. He has never competed for a Formula 1 title; his most recent push for a championship came in 2005, when he beat Heikki Kovalainen to the GP2 crown. Lewis has done this before as an F1 driver. On three occasions the Englishman has headed into the home stretch of a season with a chance at becoming World Champion. In this sense he is more prepared for what lies ahead.
There is no doubt that Rosberg is both fast and very intelligent - that is what has got him this far - and perhaps he will be back on the top step in Singapore, at a track he has gone well at in the past. However it is now Hamilton who has the momentum, while Nico seems to be fighting battles on multiple fronts: with his team-mate, his team, and the sport's fans. More than any other driver, the spotlight will be trained on him at the Marina Bay Circuit.