As the F1 machine rolled into Malaysia this weekend, both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg knew that any slip up could prove fatal with the Driver’s Championship so finely poised with six races to go. It was the German driver who found himself in pole position, by just eight points, but the momentum changes already seen this year mean that both drivers will still fancy their chances.
It’s been another controversial year for the Mercedes duo, with the tight nature of the championship doing little to improve an already tense relationship. It was Rosberg with the early season form, winning the first four races to establish a 43-point lead over Hamilton and carry on from where he left off at the end of the 2015 season. This lead perhaps led to the remarkable scenes at Barcelona, as a desperate move to overtake Rosberg on the first lap saw Hamilton take the pair spinning out of the race. Niki Lauda, the team’s non-executive chairman, placed the blame firmly on the shoulders of Hamilton for the “stupid” incident: “It’s very simple for me. It was a miscalculation in Lewis’s head.” Hamilton was under pressure both on and off the track, and needed to get a foothold in the championship.
Consecutive wins in Monaco and Canada suggested the Brit had regained some form, but another disappointing weekend followed in Azerbaijan as he finished fifth to leave Rosberg with a 24 point lead as the summer break approached. Game over? Think again. Hamilton roared back into form, winning the next four races in a row to take a 19-point lead into the summer break. A 43 point shift in four races wasn’t half bad for a man appearing to be off-colour, and one which would test the mental strength of the German.
As the drivers returned from a tough month off in their yachts in Monaco and on the beaches of the Caribbean, Rosberg would have taken all the help he could get at Spa. This help would come in the form of a 55-place grid penalty for his teammate, a rather impressive achievement on a grid of 22 cars. Hamilton did superbly to find himself on the podium, but Rosberg’s win, followed by two further wins at Italy and Singapore, erased Hamilton’s advantage and put Nico eight points ahead in the overall standings.
Earlier this week, Hamilton spoke of his confidence that the deficit can be overturned. “It’s going to take some good results, but I’ve had plenty of those in the past there’s no reason to think they won’t come back to me again.” Indeed, he can take much confidence from previous form at the final races on the F1 calendar. He’s finished one place ahead of Rosberg at each of the last three Malaysian GPs, and while predicting results has proved to be a futile task thus far, many expect the eight-point gap to be even smaller on Sunday evening. Races in Japan and the US will provide the Brit with a chance to move ahead in the standings having won at both circuits in 2014 and 2015, Texas in particular proving to be a happy hunting ground for Hamilton.
Yet even if Hamilton was to win these three races, Nico Rosberg could still head into the final three, in Mexico, Brazil, and Abu Dhabi, with reason to be positive. He won at all three tracks last season, and while Hamilton already had the title well wrapped up, any psychological advantage could be crucial for Nico. The German cruised to victory on F1’s return to Mexico, and whereas Hamilton has never won nor found himself on pole in Brazil, Rosberg has recorded consecutive victories at the Interlagos circuit. If Nico was to win these two races, the Mercedes duo could arrive at the final race in Abu Dhabi effectively level in the championship race. Both drivers have won twice under the lights, and both have been hampered by mechanical failures in a race that is always unpredictable. Add this unreliability to the immense pressure that will be on both drivers, and it has all the makings of a classic.
Last year, the dominance of the Mercedes team saw them secure 1-2 finishes at eight of the first fifteen races, leaving attempts to make up large numbers of points by either driver often restricted to seven points per race. However, Hamilton and Rosberg have been able to achieve this just four times this season so far, meaning that both drivers have been able to cut seemingly huge gaps in just a couple of races. With just eight points separating the pair, there will surely be a few more surprises in the final six races of the year. Rosberg has had the better of it so far, but Hamilton’s previous triumphs and sheer determination may well see him to a fourth Driver’s Championship.