Three races in and Nico Rosberg hasn’t left a single point on the table so far.
No one has ever begun the season with a hat-trick of victories and then failed to also win the title. But with more races than ever on the calendar and more points available for lower finishing positions, Rosberg knows his three wins don’t mean as much as they used to.
“It’s the longest season in F1 history with 21 races so that’s 18 to go,” he said on Sunday after going three-nil up on wins against team mate Lewis Hamilton so far this year.
“Of course Lewis is not many points behind, I don’t know, something like 30 points, that’s not much, that’s a race and a bit and he’s as focused and motivated as ever.” In fact Rosberg has almost twice as many points as his team mate: his 36-point margin is the biggest lead he has ever held in the drivers’ championship.
Hamilton vs Rosberg
This is surely his strongest championship position since 2014, when after the Belgian Grand Prix he led Hamilton by 29 points with 200 still available. Today he has a 36-point lead with 450 points available.
Hamilton is taking the threat from Rosberg seriously. The world champion has said he needs to win all of the remaining 18 races to clinch the title. Actually he only has to win the next 16 but the point stands: Hamilton is now in the position of a golfer with a handicap and will likely need a period of sustained success to overturn Rosberg’s lead.
Before the season began everyone was asking if Rosberg could sustain his late-2015 form and make it the basis of a championship bid. On the face of it he has: three wins at the end of last season have been followed by three more at the beginning of this one.
This is not to be underestimated. Only three other drivers in F1 history have achieved six consecutive grand prix wins. Many of F1’s greatest drivers – like Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart – were not able to sustain this kind of success.
So is it time to take Rosberg’s championship credentials seriously? For those who don’t, it’s because Hamilton has proven himself capable of achieving the kind of sustained success he now requires to turn the tables on his team mate.
Hamilton answered Rosberg’s late-2014 challenge with six wins from the last seven races. He won as he pleased throughout most of last season, winning five out of six races as he put the title beyond Rosberg’s reach with three rounds to spare. Give Rosberg a 36-point head-start in either of the last two championships and Hamilton would still have won both of them.
Rosberg’s leads means his championship challenge has to be taken seriously. But have the past six races proved he is now performing on a par with his multiple world champion team mate? Or have circumstances conspired to flatter his efforts?
It’s hard to write off six consecutive wins as an aberration, but there are some good reasons to. By his own admission, Hamilton was not giving his all in the final races of last season when Rosberg’s winning streak began. Although Rosberg has sustained that success into 2016 Hamilton’s defeats can be explained away by two poor starts – a problem he appeared to have addressed in China – and one power unit failure.
Hamilton and Rosberg have been team mates for the past three seasons at Mercedes and for two years at TeamMBM.com in FormulaA and Formula Super A karts in 2000-01. In their five seasons together, Hamilton has come out ahead every single time.
If Rosberg can finally reverse that trend this year it will be seen as a tremendous achievement and few will care whether Hamilton has been operating at less than full potential because of his recently-discovered distractions.
The strongest case against Rosberg being able to do that is he hasn’t out-qualified his team mate on merit so far this year. But should he prove capable of doing that in the coming races, that 36-point margin will begin to look very daunting indeed for Hamilton.
2016 F1 season
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- F1’s TV audience decline stopped in 2016
- Brawn among key F1 hires announced by Liberty
- Has F1 hit ‘peak penalties’? Fewer sanctions in 2016
- Brundle reveals Monaco GP heart attack