LEWIS’S DESERT STORM AS NICO CLINGS ON
Hamilton threw everything at it but came up short in the long run
T o the desert, and an F1 title showdown between the two Mercedes drivers for the second time in three years. It was Nico Rosberg’s to lose, but no way would Lewis Hamilton let his lifelong rival take his crown without a fight.
With a nod to Ayrton Senna and firmly tuned in to Channel Zen, Hamilton simply marmalised his notional opposition in this, part one of the final chapter of F1 2016. Had he ever made qualifying look as easy as he did at Yas Marina on November 26? Had he ever forehand-smashed his way to pole position with quite such dismissive, obliterating dominance?
The true answer to that question is, of course, ‘yes, many times’. But talk about delivering when it matters… Hamilton came to Abu Dhabi knowing his best course to a world title hat-trick and his fourth in total was to win the race from pole. That still might not be enough, he knew, but no matter, he was going out guns blazing, shouting from the rooftops that – title or no – he was still the biggest gun in town. A Fernando Alonso in a competitive Mclaren might have something to say about that, as might Seb Vettel in a better Ferrari, or either of the Red Bull hustlers with a slightly more punchy Renault engine. On this Saturday though, under a dipping desert sun, Hamilton drove a sequence of laps for the ages. No-one got close.
In Q1 he was early into the 1m-39s – the first man to post a sub-1m4-0s lap and the fastest of those that did, with a time of 1m-39.487s. He headed Q2, too, a tenth faster on 1m-39.382s.
Then the coup de grace: a 1m-38.755s in Q3 for pole number 61 and his 12th this season. ‘I can’t control the destiny of the title,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘but don’t dare think I’m not the fastest.’ No-one else cracked 1m-39s.
The grace and control of his driving were something to behold. Line-accurate and effortlessly fleet, there was a poise, energy and accuracy about his car control beyond his peers. The comparisons are always made to Senna, Hamilton’s idol, whose mark of 65 pole positions Lewis is fast approaching; but the calm of his driving, his soft persuasion at the helm, seemed if anything more Alain Prost-like.
Hamilton’s self-possession later, when describing his laps, went beyond anything either of those two greats had ever mustered. His utterances were delivered in a muted, almost trance-like state: “It’s kind of crazy to think I have 61 poles,” he mumbled. “That’s four more to go to try and catch Ayrton. I came here saying that if I performed at my best I could walk away feeling proud. I’ve managed to battle through this season and I’m really proud of that.”
Who knows where Lewis Hamilton’s mind goes to when he’s in the zone and returning from it, but at moments like this there’s a suspicion that he’s really not like the rest of us.
His otherworldliness – and otherworldly talent – for once looked to have Rosberg rattled, as if, now, at the last, the enormity of the prize almost within his grasp was finally sinking in: not just the prospect of becoming world champion, but of finishing ahead of Lewis to achieve that goal. Nico simply had no answer to Hamilton’s qualifying blitzkrieg, despite his best efforts. His final flyer in Q3 started well: he edged his teammate in sector one, but Lewis was faster through sectors two and three, to work a margin of 0.303s.
Rosberg looked uncharacteristically pale and tense post-session, sticking with dour resolve to his ‘one race at a time’ mantra and insisting he would “talk about the championship as much as you want on Monday.”
But was the line finally wearing a little thin? Had its usefulness expired? With P2 in the bag after a lap he described as having “a good buzz”, Rosberg looked like nothing more than a man who wanted a good night’s sleep and to get the whole darn thing over and done with.
Not so Daniel Ricciardo, who as so often, was the life and soul. He dropped his RB12 onto P3 and looked primed to cause a little trouble on Sunday, knowing that he and team-mate Max Verstappen (P6) had progressed through Q2 on super softs. With all the the other top-10 runners starting on ultra softs, there was a chance of the bulls running two or three laps longer to their first stops and gaining a decisive track position advantage.
“We’ve got to try something,” he said of the strategic curveball. “It seems to be a bit of a trend this year – if we are in a position to qualify on a different tyre, then we’ll try and see if it gives us an opportunity.”
First though, they would have to be sure of clearing the Ferraris, punchily competitive at a circuit whose long straights and cool track temperatures penalise less the aero inefficiencies and high rear tyre wear of the SF16-H. Kimi Raikkonen fourth, Seb fifth, they’d been there or thereabouts throughout practice and qualifying, with Kimi disappointed not to have snatched third. “The car behaved well all day,” he said, refusing to rule out a race-day challenge to Mercedes.
Force India locked out row four, Nico Hulkenberg ahead, then Alonso and Felipe Massa upheld Q3 honour for Mclaren and Williams.
If that left the top 10 looking predictable, Saturday closed with a tingling air of expectancy in the late-cooling Yas paddock. A title showdown lay ahead; surely there were Sunday surprises in store.
History will record the 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as another Mercedes 1-2 finish with Lewis Hamilton to the fore.
It will also note that Nico Rosberg secured enough points to win his first Formula 1 world title and finally triumph over his career-long sparring partner, Lewis Hamilton. What those bald results will fail to do, however, is tell the story of an exquisitely intense finale to a fraught season; of a race-management masterclass by Hamilton, but also of a rival who proved himself capable of withstanding the most intense pressure and emerging ultimately victorious.
As the laps ticked down around the Yas Island circuit, Rosberg, in P2 and tailing Hamilton by around a second, was a walnut in a vice. Hamilton was lapping at a pace of less than 1m 46s and doing so with some exceptionally subtle racecraft. Through sector one, down the pit straight and through T1 to T4, he was on it, keeping enough of a gap to Rosberg to prevent his team-mate from closing to within DRS range. Thereafter, through the T5/T6 chicane, the hairpin, then T8/T9, he was achingly slow, gliding the car on part-throttle at the points of the circuit where he knew Rosberg would be unable to mount an attack. Then he’d sprint away along the second straight. In this fashion, and despite repeated urging from his team to up his pace by almost a second, he was reversing Rosberg into the clutches of Verstappen and the fast-approaching supersoft-shod Vettel.
This was Hamilton’s intention, of course. Winning the race would not be enough to secure him a fourth title; he also needed Rosberg to finish fourth or lower – and allowing both Max and Seb to attack Nico was the best chance of making that happen.
Rosberg was clearly reluctant to take Lewis on in a fight and risk letting slip the title on which he had already placed a hand. Neither did he want to become embroiled in a tussle with Vettel or Verstappen, both of whom could sniff the chance of an against-the-odds victory. Nico had no desire to be the collateral damage of another man’s all-or-nothing lunge, so this would be no cruise to the crown; Hamilton was going to put him through the wringer.
The intensity of the last 10 laps was such that Paddy Lowe, Mercedes’ executive director (technical) finally issued the call on lap 52: “Lewis, this is Paddy. We need you to pick up the pace. That’s an instruction.”
Mercedes’ fear was that a 1-2 might be lost, with the advance of the hardcharging Vettel a particular concern. Hamilton didn’t see it that way and was clearly adhering to the Juan Manuel Fangio maxim of winning at the slowest possible speed. “I don’t think I did anything dangerous today,” he said. “We are fighting for the world championship. I’m in the lead, I control the pace. That’s the rules.”
Vettel, though, described Hamilton’s tactics as “dirty tricks” and Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff later said Hamilton had “undermined the structure of the team in public.”
“We agree these rules of engagement,” Wolff added, “and Lewis was part of making them, but today a precedent was set. Anarchy does not work.” Repercussions can be expected. So while Hamilton was the winner on the day – and consummately so in terms of the sheer racing expertise he flaunted – the spoils went elsewhere, to a man maybe not as gifted as Lewis, but who managed to maximise every other aspect of his season to emerge with the highest points tally.
And that, said Vettel, a contented podium finisher, was what should not be forgotten after a memorable sporting contest. “In my point of view, you don’t win a championship by luck,” he said.
“Over the course of the year you collect a lot of points and sometimes you have a good season, sometimes it’s bad. Today was Nico’s day and it’s a sign of respect to give him that.”
The strain this long and intensely pressurising season has placed on Rosberg became evident the moment he stepped away from the race track.
On the podium he was close to drowning in a flood of released tension; when addressing the press he appeared touched and humbled at the warmth of the reception that greeted him as a new world champion. He looked exhausted, pale, bone-tired and utterly spent after the trials of the past racing year.
‘One race at a time’ had sustained him almost till the last, but when, ultimately, that ‘one race’ had become a shoot-out for the title, he had no longer been able to hide from its significance.
The pressure, he admitted, had begun to catch up with him in qualifying, when, after being within a tenth of Hamilton throughout practice, he’d found himself 0.3s adrift of Lewis’s pole time. “For sure I didn’t do my best job yesterday,” he said, voice tight with emotion. “It’s just difficult when the pressure is on like that.”
He did, though, have enough in reserve, enough of that spare Finnish Sisu to make a hugely important pass on Verstappen for second place on lap 20.
With race engineer Tony Ross urging that the pass was “critical”, Rosberg launched an outside-inside move through T5 and T6, before out-dragging Verstappen out of T7.
It was fingertip-critical stuff – a hard, on-the-limit racing manoeuvre, whose success ensured the chasing Ferraris would not be able to undercut Rosberg and potentially insert themselves as a P2-P3 buffer between him and Hamilton.
“It was one of the best passes of my career,” he said. “Max didn’t give me an inch and it was incredibly intense. The feeling in the car was amazing. Honestly I have never felt like that in a car before.”
Those who suggest Rosberg ‘got lucky’ this year, thanks to a better reliability record than that enjoyed by Hamilton, might also, now, look to the harder edge Nico brought to his driving this season: in Spain (vs Hamilton), in Austria (again vs Hamilton), in Malaysia (vs Raikkonen) and this against F1’s hottest tyro.
“Austin last year [where Nico lost the race lead and world title to an aggressive wheel-banging pass by Hamilton] was the turning point for me,” Rosberg reflected. “I never wanted to feel like that again, so I took myself away for two days afterwards to think about it and then I won the next seven races.”
Just over a year later, Formula 1 has a new world champion.