Nico Rosberg holds aces over Lewis Hamilton ahead of Mexican Grand Prix

Formula One F1 - U.S. Grand Prix - Circuit of the Americas, Austin, Texas, U.S.

Touch, speed, aggression, all tempered by pitch-perfect judgment of the briefest moments have defined some of the greatest drivers in Formula One but the latter, perhaps more so than in any sport, must sometimes ride pillion to blind luck. Both have been key factors in determining how the world championship title fight has evolved this season and one or the other will yet be key here in Mexico.

Lewis Hamilton, who was faster than Rosberg in both practices on Friday even if Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel proved quickest in the second outing, must execute his role to perfection to keep his title hopes alive and should the dice roll for him his challenge to win a fourth championship might be in his hands again. If fate is fickle, however, it could be over.

His battle with Nico Rosberg can still go to the wire – three races’ time in Abu Dhabi. The German leads by 26 points, and even Mercedes one-twos in Hamilton’s favour would still secure his first championship. But that would seem too straightforward an ending to a season during which the advantage between them has ebbed and flowed to dramatic effect and on Sunday the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez might yet host a further twist in this tale.

If Rosberg wins here and Hamilton fails to finish or score a point, the title will belong to the German. If Hamilton wins and Rosberg endures a DNF, the gap between them will be down to one point. Neither Mercedes driver thus far has been able to lay claim to truly be the heir apparent. Rosberg opened with four wins and an advantage of 43 points but Hamilton came back at him with a run of six from seven and was 19 points to the better after the German Grand Prix. He did not win again, however, until the last round in Austin, with Rosberg’s advantage regained through four victories.

What has made these shifts so compelling and caused so much debate is that they have not been down solely to one driver simply gaining the upper hand on track. Without doubt fortune has not been kind to Hamilton. His early season deficit was prompted by ERS failures in qualifying for China and Russia, then he lost practice time in Singapore with a hydraulic issue, all setbacks that would be dwarfed by having his engine blow up while leading in Malaysia – an event that was as unlikely for the Mercedes hybrid power unit as it was crushing to the driver.

The early-season failures were compounded by a penalty-enforced start at the back in Spa, while the only major mechanical issue Rosberg has endured was a gearbox problem at the British Grand Prix that caused him to finish third rather than second. After Malaysia Hamilton was vocal in his frustration that whenever a Mercedes power unit had an issue it was the one on his No44 car. He has a point; of the eight Mercedes-powered cars on the grid only his has needed replacements engendering penalties.

But there have also been uncharacteristic problems in areas over which he does exercise control. An error in qualifying cost him Baku but poor starts are the real issue: five, in Australia, Canada, Bahrain, Italy and Japan. The change this season to only one clutch with the teams unable to change its settings once the car has left the garage, is one with which Hamilton has struggled and it has cost him.

He must not let it happen again this weekend but how it plays out beyond that is made all the more compelling by taking place at the unique challenge of the Mexican Grand Prix. The daunting high-speed banking of the Peraltada may have been neutered but in almost every other way this track is still a ferocious test of car and driver.

The high altitude and thinner air of Mexico City reduces aero effects. The turbo-chargers work harder to deliver the same level of power but with the drag reduced top speeds are high and may well better the upper limits of the current generations of cars – it will be at least around 227mph before braking into turn one. Equally, however, there is less downforce, to deal with a track that requires grip through the second half and particularly through the stadium section. The power unit is under pressure then, as are the brakes which are difficult to cool and the tyres face extra work from the lack of downforce and low grip levels. As engineering tests go, Mexico poses stern questions and having raced here only once before in the modern era, it remains to a certain extent an unknown quantity – if the dice are to roll, a DNF here for either contender would be more likely than Brazil.

The tight corners, allied to lower downforce and higher top speeds, will demand the maximum from the drivers, with intense pressure on both this may well prove to be both a test of nerve and of will. Crucially, however, here Rosberg has an advantage. Hamilton cannot afford a retirement and should the German squeeze him and risk contact he will have to yield, not something the world champion will take to easily.

There were questions about Hamilton’s focus in the season-closing races after he had the title secured in 2015, all of which Rosberg won, beginning in Mexico but this year, with the title race in the balance, luck and judgment may play their part, but there will be no questioning the attention of either driver.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Giles Richards in Mexico City, for The Guardian on Friday 28th October 2016 18.50 Europe/London

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