Fight to the finish

Nico Rosberg just has to step on the pedal, go for the pole position and convert it into a win without worrying about Lewis Hamilton. On the other hand, Hamilton, who knows a second-place finish is enough to guarantee him the title, will be better served by not taking the race in a conservative manner. S. Dipak Ragav assesses the intriguing battle for the World title.

Formula One has been in the news for all the wrong reasons since last month, starting with Jules Bianchi’s accident, followed by the two teams, Caterham and Marussia, going into administration after the Russian Grand Prix and a potential boycott posturing by some midfield teams in Texas. However, when the F1 bandwagon assembles for one last time this season in Abu Dhabi (November 23), the focus will shift to the track, as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg slug it out for the World title.

Right from the first winter test in early February in Jerez (Spain), it was very clear that Mercedes had the best package, as they seemed to rack up the mileage with minimum trouble to kick-start the new era in F1 with hybrid turbo engines. With the silver arrows having stolen a march on their rivals both in terms of engine and the package, it was very clear from the first race that the battle for the World title would be only between Rosberg and Hamilton.

Now after 18 races, and the momentum shifting from one driver to the other, Hamilton heads into the final race of the season with a 17-point lead over Rosberg and a hand on his second World title even though 50 points are still up for grabs at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. With the Mercedes drivers finishing 1-2 in 11 of the 18 races so far, it is hard to fathom anyone disrupting this for one last time. And a second place is all that Hamilton needs to win the title.

Rosberg versus Hamilton

When the two were paired last year for the first time in F1, people were waiting to see how long the friendship they share (Rosberg and Hamilton were team-mates in their karting years and were racing each other in junior formulae) would last. However, with Mercedes not having enough to challenge Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel last year, the slugfest between Rosberg and Hamilton did not come off. However, with a dominant package this year, it was very clear the team bosses would have a tough time keeping the relationship between the two drivers smooth. And it did not take long before the first cracks in their relationship appeared. During the qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix, Rosberg, having set a quicker time on his first lap, locked up and drove into the run-off area on his last lap, bringing out the yellow flag, which ruined his team-mate’s chances of grabbing the pole position. Hamilton felt the German did it on purpose to ruin his lap, and on the podium that Sunday (Rosberg won the race, while Hamilton came in second), the discord between the two became clear.

The real turning point of the season, however, came at the Belgian Grand Prix when Rosberg, while trying to make an opportunistic move on the Brit on lap two, ended up hitting the latter. As a result, Hamilton suffered a puncture that effectively ended his chance of scoring a point.

Mercedes’ non-executive chairman, Niki Lauda, lashed out at Rosberg for hitting Hamilton and the German had to issue a public apology. After the race Rosberg had a lead of 29 points over his team-mate, but the effect of the clash turned the championship race the other way, with Hamilton winning the next five Grands Prix to surge to a 24-point lead over the German before Rosberg managed to pull one back in the penultimate race in Brazil.

Since the clash at Spa, Rosberg has shown a tendency to be fragile in wheel-to-wheel battle and has made mistakes while being in a winning position to hand the advantage to Hamilton in at least three of the five races.

The approach

The only chance for Rosberg to land the World title is by winning the race, and he has the machine at his disposal to do that. The German driver, though, has generally struggled against Hamilton in the races despite surprisingly out-qualifying the Brit (he is considered among the best over a single-lap in qualifying) 10-8.

Rosberg has finished ahead of Hamilton only four times when both the cars had finished. However, going into the final race, Rosberg can take some solace from the fact that he had held off his team-mate for nearly 16 laps in the Brazilian Grand Prix without making mistakes.

With the odds stacked against him, Rosberg just has to step on the pedal, go for the pole position and convert it into a win without worrying about Hamilton.

While Hamilton knows a second-place finish is enough to guarantee him the title, he will be better served by not taking the race in a conservative manner. He only has to look at how he won the World title in 2008 — he nearly lost it with a sombre approach. With a seven-point lead over Felipe Massa, Hamilton and McLaren were very cautious and lacked the pace throughout the weekend. Needing only a fifth-place finish to beat Massa to the title, he just about managed to do that on the last corner of the last lap of the race, when he passed Timo Glock — struggling on dry tyres on a damp track — to win the championship by one point.

The best way for Hamilton to win his second World title is to take the battle to Rosberg. As he has shown all year, with 10 wins to Rosberg’s five, the Brit is the better driver on a race day.

For Hamilton, who is seen as a driver in the mould of Ayrton Senna and shares a common trait with the Brazilian legend — be it the distinct yellow helmet (Hamilton chose this colour because of his fascination for Senna), devout faith in Christianity or the ‘heart on sleeve’ approach — winning the title would be a fitting tribute to his idol 20 years after his death.

In his column on the BBC website, Hamilton wrote: “He (Senna) was my childhood hero and, although I’m a lot older now, he was — besides my dad — the person who had the most influence on me when I was growing up.”

Maybe Hamilton can pick up from where Senna left off. The Brazilian was the last man to win a title driving a turbocharged engine 26 years ago, beating his more cerebral McLaren team-mate Alain Prost in a season when the duo had the best machine on the grid, like the Mercedes of 2014.