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.
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.