By Steve Aibel, Senior F1 Writer
With the Malaysian Grand Prix in the books, Nico Rosberg has a slim 23-point lead over Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in the wildfire battle that is called the Formula 1 World Championship.
Rosberg has put together a Herculean effort post summer break that has pitched him into command of the title battle, but his command is tenuous at best with five remaining rounds to be fought in the next two months.
What will drive the winner through to completion?
Will it be Hamilton’s quest for a fourth World Championship equaling Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel?
Will it be Rosberg who truly is looking to prove that he has what is takes to be a World Champion?
This will be one for the ages and we are in its midst right now.
The 16th round in Kuala Lumpur was anything but smooth sailing for the Mercedes contingent. While Hamilton cruised to pole position and took early advantage and the race lead, he was knocked out of the fight when an engine fire stopped him dead on track. Zero points for Hamilton in Malaysia and advantage to Rosberg.
Rosberg, however, also experienced a tumultuous Grand Prix. He was punted by four-time champion Sebastian Vettel on the opening corner of the opening lap and was lucky, very lucky, to have escaped with no damage. Rosberg dropped to the rear of the pack and spent the entire race trying to minimize the damage of a what appeared to be a Hamilton victory.
Instead, Hamilton came home with a DNF and Rosberg wound up gaining considerably. For once, the ‘Racing Gods’ appear to favor the German,
Malaysia may be looked at as the turning point in the fierce see-saw title fight. Both drivers have had command of the season long battle, but neither has been been able to place the knock out punch. With five races remaining, Formula 1 is set for a finale that we have all be awaiting.
A 23-point lead can be eclipsed within one race so both drivers are heavily still in play. The upcoming tracks provide a relatively even playing field for both drivers. Some tracks favor the Briton (Suzuka, Austin) and others favor the German (Brazil).
The Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka is a funny track in that Hamilton has won the last two races here, but says he has never felt he has quite hit the set up. Given the lack of feel he has had in the car since the summer break, Suzuka could present a more even playing field than it would look from the record. Last year Rosberg took pole position so this race is an absolute toss up with a slight edge to Hamilton.
Suzuka may also provide some surprises in the running order as there is a strong chance of wet, slick conditions on race day and some elevated competition from Red Bull Racing. Expect to see Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen impact the Mercedes war wagon in some fashion as the season concludes.
The United States Grand Prix in Austin has been the personal playground for the three-time World Champion. He has taken three of the four events held at Circuit of the Americas. Rosberg, however, was game last year right until the end when the stalking Hamilton forced an error that gifted the win, and the Championship, to Hamilton. While never easy to hold off a charging Hamilton, Rosberg appears to have learned from this experience how to compete with Hamilton when he enters full blown stalking mode.
So for Austin, expect fireworks set at the level of a Taylor Swift full blown concert.
The Grand Prix of Mexico is a crap shoot as the venue in this configuration is new to the series and they have only run here once in 2015. Rosberg won the event, but Hamilton had already clinched the championship, removing himself from full throttle race mode. So Mexico, for the third race in a row should be a toss up for the two drivers.
Brazil would appear to be a track where Rosberg retains an advantage, winning the last two events in 2014 and 2015. Remember, however, that Hamilton finished P2 those two events and also stole his first World Championship in 2008 from Felipe Massa at this very track on the last lap. So Hamilton runs well in Brazil as well, practically negating any advantage in Rosberg’s favor.
Finally, Abu Dhabi.
If the battle continues to ping pong back and forth Abu Dhabi will be a winner take all championship battle that could end the era of dominance of the current Mercedes package. There is a lot at stake and even with a lead of 23-points, this race looks to be one that will swing back and forth until completion.
In Rosberg’s favor, he has shown the ability to retain a laser locked focus on each race as it comes. He is certainly able to match Hamilton’s pace and appears to be able to quickly put behind him bad races or situations that don’t go his way.
Hamilton on the other hand is blindingly fast and a three time champion who has shown the maturity to realize that there is plenty of time to go on one of his patented winning streaks and grab his fourth championship.
As competitive as these two have been this season, it will be unfortunate to see this years clash come down to dependable machinery. Although the points battle is very close, the two drivers have not shown the ability or been given the chance to frequently race wheel to wheel on track this season. This may change in the final five rounds.
Often, as in Malaysia, some sort of failure relegates one of the pair to either retire or start from the back of the pack, practically gifting the race win to the other competitor. If Mercedes can dial in their package and present a level playing field, we could easily be in for one of the best finishes in recent F1 history.