The destination of the 2016 Formula One world championship has already been decided in the uncompromising mind of Lewis Hamilton. The final, title-deciding race of the season here on Sunday, which has brought an international media circus to this gaudy oasis in the desert of the United Arab Emirates, is but a backdrop to his remarkable self-belief.
Whatever happens here – and Rosberg, with a 12-point lead, has only to finish in the top three to secure his first world crown – Hamilton will still be champion in his own unfaltering eyes. “Maybe I should keep this private to myself, but I feel a certain way in my heart,” he said here. “How I have performed. And if he is labelled the world champion it doesn’t necessarily mean that is the way it is in my heart.”
Hamilton is so gifted, so innately talented, that people forget about the ferocity of his will, the indomitability of his competitive spirit.
It is a measure of Rosberg’s achievement this season that he has done so well against not only the quickest driver of his generation but also a Mercedes team-mate who is every bit as zealously combative as he is.
Hamilton added: “When you look at world champions you generally hope that they are the best in all areas, all year long. But in my heart I will feel a certain way, in terms of how I have performed, my pace and my ability. That wouldn’t take anything away from what he would have achieved.
“But for me, personally, it will be a lot easier to move forward. Just like in 2007, when in my heart I felt like I actually won that world championship, even though it doesn’t show that on paper.” The rookie Hamilton deserved the title that year but was denied by Kimi Raikkonen – the British driver won the first of his three championships the following year.
An edge of enmity has sharpened the relationship between these once close friends, Hamilton and Rosberg, so that theirs can now be counted among the great rivalries of Formula One, alongside Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, Niki Lauda and James Hunt and, above all others, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.
So it is difficult now to remember them as the carefree, cavorting pals they once were. Can those old pictures of them riding unicycles and sharing ice creams, playing football, table tennis and computer games be real?
When they first competed against each other they talked about how cool it would be if they ended up as team-mates in Formula One. Well, it’s so cool now you can see a glisten on the frost.
These two 31-year-olds were first team-mates in 2000, when they were in karting. They raced for MBM (Mercedes‑Benz/McLaren) and Hamilton became European champion, with Rosberg close behind.
“They would even have races to eat pizza, always eating two at a time,” recalls Robert Kubica, who raced with them then before joining them in F1.
Their old karting boss Dino Chiesa said: “Many times I was called by reception about some problem in the room. It might be noise or they might have broken something. They would never sleep, so they were always tired the next morning.
“Both liked ice cream so much, particularly vanilla. During the night, they wanted to eat ice cream always, so I had to go out everywhere and find some to keep them happy. They were just kids.”
They were unlikely friends – Rosberg, an only child, born in Germany but brought up in Monaco, the son of the wealthy former F1 champion Keke, and Hamilton, born on a council estate in Stevenage – but friends nevertheless. Hamilton would mischievously persuade the rich young Rosberg to buy him sweets.
Hamilton, said Chiesa, wanted to play more and fight more in those days. And he was the faster driver, even then. Rosberg, who once told me that “everything relates to physics and maths”, had a serious side even then. Now he speaks five languages and reads the business pages; Hamilton does not.
The pair were friends when they moved up to Formula Three, and friends still when they made it to F1 (Rosberg in 2006, Hamilton the following year). They even got on famously when Hamilton joined Rosberg at Mercedes in 2013, but that was the beginning of the big freeze.
The relationship started to become seriously sour at Monaco in 2014, when Rosberg appeared to deliberately get in the way of Hamilton as the latter attempted to claim pole.
Later that year, at Spa, the two crashed into each other. Mercedes later blamed Rosberg for the incident, which appeared to have a profoundly negative effect on his season.
There was more ill-feeling last year, in Shanghai, where Rosberg accused Hamilton of compromising his race, and again in Austin, where Hamilton won his third title but annoyed Rosberg by aggressively forcing him wide at turn one to take the lead; that was followed by the infamous, pre-podium cap‑throwing incident.
The two were “playing” once more here earlier this week, sparring with each other in a special press conference, with the two men of the moment alongside each other. Hamilton was easily the more comfortable.
Afterwards Hamilton, who topped both practice runs on Friday, said he had been amused by Rosberg’s remark that he would continue to take one race at a time, “because that’s worked for me until now”. Hamilton said: “Yeh, and some of my engine problems.”
Hamilton is a little obsessed with his engine difficulties and in truth he has had more bad luck than Rosberg this year. But he also had those flat weekends in Baku and Singapore. He has made five bad starts, which have cost him dear. They have won nine races apiece, with Hamilton leading the pole race 11-8.
“If I was to win [the championship] it would by far be the greatest achievement of my career, for sure,” he says. And it would. But then in Hamilton’s eyes he already has done.
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