Might peace be declared at Mercedes? Let’s sincerely hope not.
The team, who on Friday renewed Nico Rosberg’s contract until 2018, will not share this opinion but for them the spectacle is bit player to the business of winning. For everyone else the battle between Lewis Hamilton and his team-mate remains very much the star of the show.
Their relationship that has gone from childhood friendship to the sparring of the current cold war, has brought drama to what may otherwise have been a rather straightforward fight at the front of the grid. “It’s a great feeling to start the day, with my contract being sorted,” Rosberg said. “That was always going to be a positive boost.”
The pair joined up at the Hungarian Grand Prix in the knowledge that while two more years together stretch ahead, one will go home on Sunday leading the championship. If it is Hamilton, the world champion will have come back from a 43-point deficit to overtake his team-mate at the top for the first time this season. That would be a blow from which Rosberg might choose to console himself by counting the zeroes on his contract.
There may even be a couple of tenths a lap to be gained from the spur of mutual enmity. Both will doubtless think so. Neither will feel their relationship has anything further to lose while they have the dominant cars and the championship-winning potential that has seen Hamilton take the title for the past two years.
Such is Mercedes’ advantage over their rivals, the pair have been the only real contenders since 2014. Both know this is their best chance to win the title, piling hope and expectation on to what is already a combative scenario. The friendly competition of their childhood in karting has all but disappeared, with Rosberg noting this week of Hamilton that: “I have huge respect for him but, well, we’re not best friends at the moment.”
Hamilton is less inclined to even acknowledge the situation, declining to discuss their relationship on a personal level, batting back questions by focusing on his own agenda. “It would be the same thing if Fernando Alonso was in the car next to me,” he said before Rosberg’s contract was confirmed. “If there were any of the great drivers in the car next to me, we would be having the same fight. Might be smoother, might be more aggressive but not much different.”
But when the pair are forced together in public the reality is hard to disguise, from the cap-throwing incident in Austin last year to Hamilton talking about Rosberg to Max Verstappen, while Rosberg himself was sitting only feet away, after the British Grand Prix.
The needle became an issue when it manifested on the track. The team read the riot act to Rosberg after he hit Hamilton at Spa in 2014 and relative equanimity returned until this season. Rosberg had a flying start, winning the first four grands prix but the pair hit one another at the fifth in Spain, ending both their races. They clashed again in Canada, with less drastic results, but when Rosberg drove into Hamilton on the final lap in Austria at the start of this month, the team were furious.
Mercedes had rejected having a No1 driver policy when they took Hamilton on in 2013, believing the best way for the team to progress was to have two evenly matched drivers. Toto Wolff, the head of the Mercedes team, warned at the end of 2015 that should the arrangement not work, they would consider changing the driver lineup. Post-Austria team orders were on the table and with Rosberg’s contract not renewed there was considerable debate over whether he would be kept on.
Mercedes refrained from employing team orders and issued both drivers with a final warning, with undisclosed punishments for further incidents. “We want them to be race drivers, they are the stars of the show,” Wolff said. “We don’t want to have them go around like puppies. But equally let us not have three shunts in five races.” However, they still had the option of reverting to a new driver – with Esteban Ocon – Renault’s reserve driver – and Manor’s Pascal Wehrlein both part of their driver development programme and tipped for a seat in the future.
Mercedes chose to stick with what they know and a driver they have had on board since the team returned to F1 in 2010. Conservatism perhaps, and some will bemoan the excitement new blood and a new challenge for Hamilton may have presented. “In a couple of years we might look back and say Rosberg-Hamilton was one of the best battles,” Wolff said, and that might yet be the case. While they may not have the ceasefire required Mercedes have ensured the stage is set for what is the defining rivalry of the hybrid era to play itself out.
That this plot is still unwritten was emphasised when Hamilton’s opening burst in his attempt to step ahead of Rosberg in Hungary suffered a setback in practice after he crashed during FP2. He had topped the time sheets in first practice but in the afternoon session lost control on the way into turn 11, going into the side wall. He was able to return the car to the pits, although the impact required him to be checked over at the medical centre. Rosberg concluded the session with the quickest time.
Hamilton apologised to the team for the mishap. “It was not the greatest session for me and my apologies to the crew for all the hard work they have ahead to strip the car and get it back together,” he said. But it was a measure of his current high confidence that he was still upbeat and optimistic after the session.
“It is frustrating, and I am little bit disappointed with myself but these things happen. I am not injured so I can get back on it. In Formula One they are generally so over the top. You see MotoGP riders and they ride with broken ankles and collarbones and we have one little busted finger and they don’t want you to race. Fortunately I have no problems.”
Four times previously a winner here, the lack of track time will not seriously inconvenience the world champion.
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