Nico has one option regarding Hamilton

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The makeup is flaking over at Mercedes now that the team has potential competition for the 2015 season. Last year, the debate was whether to allow their drivers to race each other as they had the rest of the field completely dominated and the choice, with some measure of bravado I might add, was to let them race. Aren’t we a fair team and aren’t we doing what’s best for Formula 1, and we aren’t like Ferrari or other teams calling out team orders.

This weekend in China, the body language coming from Nico Rosberg was tangibly sour. You can sense a frustration within the German from the Malaysian Grand Prix onward and with all the talk of splitting strategies on Friday and Saturday in China, one has to wonder if Nico has been told he’s now playing the role of number two driver.

The answer to that is to simply beat Lewis Hamilton if he doesn’t like playing second fiddle but that’s not as easy as it sounds. Lewis is in top form and depending on how strategy is assigned, Nico may not only be facing the 2014 world champion’s pace but the team’s strategy for the remainder of the season.

It’s a signal that when pressured, all teams take a different track and start maximizing their potential regardless of the individual driver’s aspirations. Rosberg wasn’t happy with Hamilton’s slow pace in the early laps of the Chinese Grand Prix saying:

“It’s now interesting to hear from you Lewis that you were just thinking about yourself with the pace at the front,” he said, sitting alongside Hamilton in the press conference.

“Unnecessarily, that was compromising my race, because driving slower than was maybe necessary at the beginning of stints meant Sebastian was very close to me.

“That opened up the opportunity for Sebastian to try that early pitstop to try and jump me, and then I had to cover him.

“First of all it was unnecessarily close with Sebastian and also it cost me a lot of race time as a result, as I had to cover him.

“And my tires died at the end of the race because my stint was so much longer.

“So I’m unhappy about that.”

Rosberg was falling into the clutches of Vettel but couldn’t speed up to challenge Hamilton as the dirty air wash coming from the back of Lewis’s car only degraded Rosberg’s tires faster. To Lewis’s point, however, he was managing his own tire wear and setting a pace that was showing a high level of car sympathy as any champion would do. He rebutted Rosberg by saying:

“It’s not my job to look after Nico’s race,” he argued.

“My job is to manage the car and bring the car home as healthy and fast as possible.

“That is what I did.

“I didn’t do anything intentionally to slow any of the cars up. I just focused on myself.

“If Nico wanted to get by he could try, but he didn’t.”

While the two drivers viewed the race differently, you have to assume that two strategies were being played out and they were symbiotic but in conflict with each other if one wasn’t exactly to plan or pace but team boss Toto Wolff reckons Lewis did nothing wrong while admitting that it endangered Rosberg’s race:

“We realised as a team that this was putting us into trouble, putting Nico into trouble, risking the second place or even worse,” Wolff said.

“If Lewis has a DNF then you could potentially lose the race as Mercedes, so there was lots of talk on the pitwall of the possible consequences.

“He didn’t know that. I think you cannot really blame anybody.”

While that all seems fairly straight forward, it is Wolff’s comment that has some revelation to the fact that Lewis was, indeed, running too slow and risking the strategy of Rosberg—even if that strategy was designed to keep Nico behind Lewis and in second place:

“It could have come to a point today where we would have been very firm on the radio, saying this is what needs to be done in order not to risk the race result.

“He [Hamilton] didn’t do anything wrong, but we were close to having such a call, that the pace needs to go up now.

“It could come to a situation where you see we are risking the win against the Ferrari that we might do an unpopular call.

“We wouldn’t freeze anything like this, because that is something we decided not to do, but it could be a situation where we need to manage them more.”

That does imply that Hamilton was impacting his teammates strategy and while that strategy was designed to keep Nico in second place behind Hamilton, it is an intriguing insight into the teams challenges for the balance of the season.

The impact of Ferrari’s pace

Ultimately Rosberg’s body language this weekend suggests that he is coming to terms with the fact that he is now the number two driver and when the team mentioned that they would split strategies, that didn’t go down well with the German. It, effectively, meant that the two drivers wouldn’t be given equal and identical opportunities to race each other and this is most likely due to Ferrari’s pace.

If Ferrari’s pace isn’t good enough to beat Mercedes outright yet, perhaps it is just good enough to beat Mercedes from within by creating enough competition to compel the team to split strategies and thus unsettle their drivers enough to beat themselves or overturn the apple cart.

Nico’s Option

Let me say this—Nico is coming to the realization that he now will have split strategies, not level ground, in which to take the battle to Lewis. He missed that chance last year and now with Ferrari’s pace, the season is not a repeat of 2014 with equal strategies. Hamilton is massively quick and he’s a champion for Mercedes.

I know what Senna or Schumacher would do in this situation. I also know what Lewis Hamilton would do in this situation because he did in at McLaren in 2007 when his teammate was Fernando Alonso. Lewis gave Fernando and the team the middle finger and drove himself into being a force to be reckoned with.

Lewis wasn’t about to play wet-nurse to Fernando regardless of what the team’s strategy was and regardless if Fernando was the clear number one driver. Senna didn’t do that with his team or teammates either. Neither did Schumacher. In fact, neither did Sebastian Vettel.

You recall the booing of Vettel for passing Webber? You remember the booing for Rosberg when he dared take the fight to Lewis at the Belgium Grand Prix? It’s time to get booed again.

There are drivers who are fine with being second in a great team instead of number one in a mid-field team and Rubens Barrichello comes to mind. For other drivers, that’s a bitter pill to swallow as we saw with Mark Webber at Red Bull. Webber’s collisions with Vettel were born from his desire to do what Senna, Schumacher and Hamilton did when they were faced with similar situations.

Nico has a choice to make. Does he become the team player for Mercedes or does he do what Lewis did and give it hell? The team radioed Lewis twice asking him to meet a lap target meaning he was too slow and compromising Nico’s race. Nico radioed asking for permission to speed up and pass Lewis.

For Lewis to say Nico could have just passed him if he was concerned over his pace during the post-race press conference is not true. It sounds good but Nico had no choice if he wanted to play along with the team’s strategy. He radioed for permission to do so but was told the degradation in dirty air would ruin his race.

Nico has one chance if he is going to give the team the middles. It wither works or it doesn’t and it could cost him his drive at Mercedes and that is the big question—does he want a long career there or does the though of following Lewis around trump his aspirations for glory? Will he be Rubens or Michael? Will he do what Lewis has already done? Or will he continue to help Lewis win titles? Nico might take inspiration from Lewis’s comment in the Chinese GP post-race interviews—his job isn’t to manage Lewis’s race.

If Nico’s does take the advice and follows Schumacher, Senna, Vettel and Hamilton’s ways, I think Sebastian may be there to mop up the pieces.

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Paul KieferJr

Kinda puts both Mercedes and Rosberg between a rock and a hard place. Maybe it’s also time for him to seek his fortunes elsewhere, though those kind of options are rather limited.

Negative Camber

Keep in mind, all of this supposes that Nico feels he can beat Hamilton on any given day. If he doesn’t, then he’a already beaten, right? Senna, Schumacher and Lewis all knew they were faster and they could pull it off. Nico has a challenge in that he won poles but not races against Lewis. My hunch is, he’ll fall in line.

Andreas

I’ve said it before, but I feel the image portrayed by the Mercedes team – that they let their drivers race freely – isn’t entirely correct. Yes, they’ve had a few wheel-to-wheel battles, but it has always been in a very controlled environment. Both drivers have had to use the same strategy and settings. If the guy behind wanted to switch to a three-stop strategy to try getting in front, that would be a no go. If he wanted to pit early to try and undercut his team mate, another no go. Last year, there were several times where it… Read more »

dom

sounds right but the problem with alternate strategies at Merc i think is that neither driver is likely to yield to the other when the inevitable call comes from the pit wall asking “don’t hold him up, he’s on a different strategy”… Lewis denied Nico that before and would undoubtedly do it again and Nico sure hasn’t forgotten it…

Andreas

True – that would definitely be an issue, and might well be one reason the team so far has kept them on the same strategy. Toto Wolff mentioned before the race that splitting strategies is one option they’re considering, if the opposition starts coming too close for comfort. Obviously, neither driver will be left with the (at least on paper) less desireable strategy… That said, for me as a fan it’s slightly frustrating to know that the team are limiting their drivers’ options mid-race. But I guess you can’t please everyone :-)

Kwamberto

hmmmm. The only point of contention I have with your article is the idea that merc have now gone with team orders and Nico is the no. 2 driver. They claim that is not the case and Nico himself has said it isn’t so. He also said that his plan was attack at the end of the race so it wasn’t just so he and Lewis could coast home in a one-two. He was upset because Lewis’ lack of pace on the second stint put him in a position where he could not challenge Lewis at the end of the… Read more »

Shaolin

In my opinion, Nico is already beaten. this weekend has proven that Lewis has him beaten on pace and mentally.
The only hope left for nico is that lewis has some reliability issues that can give him some momentum, otherwise its over for this season.

StevenM

You start off by saying that Merc MIGHT have made Nick the #2 driver, and then you end the article implying that it’s for sure that Nick is now Merc’s #2 driver simply because he didn’t pass Lewis. The truth is that we dont know. IMO Nick didn’t pass Lewis simply because he couldn’t, Lewis always had more pace when he needed it. Nico cant what Senna/Schumacher/Lewis did because he doesn’t have the talent or speed….

Negative Camber

Hence my very first comment in the comment section, he’d have to be convinced he could pull a Senna and can beat Lewis on any given day. If he isn’t, then it won’t work. If he can’t beat Lewis, then he is number two…period.

Joseph Simmons

Frustration is such a damning state for anyone, which has become a drowning pool for Rosberg. He has become acutely aware that LCH is able to pass him on track. Now he is faced with the fact of his qualilfying pace, which was his ace card to battle Hamilton. Today he came face to face to the reality of the stark possibility losing the WDC, but favor in his own team too. Couple this with a resurgent Ferrari and specifically Vettel, he is looking to being pushed into the shadows. So what are his options? McLaren could be a landing… Read more »

Boyd McCollum

Great analysis Todd. I’d go one step further and lay the issue today more at the feet of Mercedes, and a bit more on Lewis. Mercedes could see what was playing out for Nico very clearly. But they were very slow to respond to it. I don’t know why they needed Nico to ask multiple times for the team to do something before the team actually did. Lewis said he was a just tooling along and was okay with Nico being brought in before him. It was great when Nico had already fallen too far back to make the undercut… Read more »

gsprings

If Nico is forced into a number 2 role, it’s his own fault,and yes I think luck won’t be on his side this year,I think lewis will beat him bad this year

John Matalevich

I couldn’t agree with you more !!! Nico is a really good driver but if he wants to be great he has to very eloquently give the “middle finger” to the system because the truth of the matter is if he separates himself (which if Mercedes keeps their advantage up will likely win him a championship) he will always have a job somewhere. When we talk about great drivers past or present wether it’s Senna and Schumacher or Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel they would take what is theres.

228929292AABBB

First of all I think it’s natural for teammates to use strategy against each other, the season is young and with a couple DNFs or a swing in momentum it could go the other way quickly, people don’t become champions by leaving well enough alone. But I think this isn’t the first move of Lewis’s. When they pitted under yellow a race or two ago and Mercedes chose to stack its pitstops, did anyone notice Lewis hesitate a second after he was dropped from the jacks? That extra moment Nico sat waiting for the pitbox put him behind another 3… Read more »

runnah

Nico is a nice guy, and nice guys finish last.

dom

JEZZA! So you’re a contributing writer to F1B now? ;)

runnah

Keep it quiet or I’ll be forced to punch you!

Terry Fishlock

Rosberg has been the defacto 2nd driver since the first race of the 2014 season. He has never passed Hamilton on track and made it stick. Whereas Hamilton has repeatedly hunted down and passed Rosberg.

So it does not matter what Rosberg wants to do, he is not capable of doing it in practice. The team is obviously aware of this so when Ferrari close the time gaps to Mercedes it’s pretty obvious who will have to fall in line to protect their position.

Benalf

Nico is a sad number two driver. He flushed his maiden F1 title last year and let the team and Lewis to let his championship slip away since the Monaco qualy incident. He lacks the mental strength and determination to make sure things goes his way….asking to permission to close the gap to Lewis? Really? What happened yesterday with Mercedes pace shows two things; first, Rosberg is a couple of notches behind Lewis in terms of racecraft and way behind in terms of ego…two, Ferrari are a little more behind Merc than what we see on the time gaps; I… Read more »

dom

Martin Brundle on Sky Sports coverage thought the same thing. Sky Sports F1 channel (love it) offers a lot of coverage before and after the race, even well after the race. He observed a meeting shortly before the race between Bernie, Lauda & Arrivabene and after the race suggested (rather surprisingly) that they had discussed ‘orchestrating’ the race (by limiting the gap to the Ferrari) in order to keep the show interesting. Everyone, except us it would seem, would benefit from the appearance of a closer race and the ongoing story of Ferrari’s comeback amid early speculation about this year’s… Read more »

Mr. Obvious

Anyone else get the sense that Mercedes turned down the wick after Australia “for the good of the sport”? I mean, a 30second gap doesn’t evaporate in a fortnight…not even for Ferrari.

Negative Camber

I’m thinking Ferrari turned the wick down in China after they realized they weren’t going to be able to take the fight to Merc on their Mediums int eh final stint.

Boyd McCollum

I’m not sure Todd. Vettel and Ferrari were pretty aggressive in the first 2 stints, pitting early. Vettel himself wasn’t sure if he really could go 29 laps (or was it 27?) on the mediums, but felt it was worth a shot. Kimi was able to preserve his tires much more and was closing in on Vettel and it would have been an interesting battle if the SC didn’t come out. I don’t think Vet would turn down his engine with Kimi on his tail, nor did Kimi indicate he had turned his engine down to preserve Vet’s 3rd place.… Read more »

Boyd McCollum

I think the issue for Mercs is similar to Red Bull in the first half of 2013 – the car is too much for the tires (especially in Malaysia and 60C plus track temps and a bit in China). They could go much faster but will suffer huge tire deg. This wasn’t the case in Australia.

Also 1 engine needs to last 5 races, so many teams, including Ferrari will be turning down the wick as much as possible.

Matt R.

Nico wasnt booed at Spa for “daring to take the fight to his teammate”, he was booed for a clumsy overtake attempt that took his teammate out of the race. I would argue that the boos Seb got in Malaysia 2013 were vastly more unfair that the booing Rosberg got at Spa. Seb was manifestly the better, faster driver in that team and deserved number one status.

Negative Camber

Clumsy or not, sticking his nose in, not backing down is trying to take the race to Lewis. It may not have been the best move but it wasn’t boo worthy. F1 is replete with similar incidents…hundreds of them and I don’t recall booing. I think Nico was a little over the top in suggesting Lewis was playing with his race but Webber did it to Vettel and there is precedent for drivers backing their teammates up into the hands of another competitor. Turkey 2010.

Paul KieferJr

I don’t know why, but…these days, every time I see a Nico Rosberg photo, my mind draws a circle around it and writes “On Suicide Watch” above it. Certainly don’t think it’s true, but…..it sort of reminds me of bullying and the consequences those things bring.

Scott Crawford

If there comes a point where the team have to choose (if they haven’t already) I can’t see how it would be Nico. They’ve paid $$$$$ for a mega-star driver, both on and off-track. Lewis is a MUCH more reconizable global star and marketable entity. There’s no way the Merc board are going to want to hear how they’ve ditched said icon in favour of someone no one ever heard of outside F1. There’s no question of whether Nico is a BETTER driver than Lewis (although on a good day he’s pretty close) so really it’s a no-brainer. Nico is… Read more »

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