Nico Rosberg fluffed his lines after just one corner to leave Lewis Hamilton flying out of Russia with love yesterday. The British driver’s repeated assertions at the weekend that he would be coming to Sochi on his holidays have tested the limits of believability, but this resident of Monaco will come back every Sunday if he can be assured of a victory as elementary as this.
After a fleeting challenge from Rosberg off the line, Hamilton was gone into the distance, never to be caught, confronted or flustered. The Englishman had the pace in spades, turning on the taps for the very few brief moments required.
Despite a rousing resurrection after the first lap, Rosberg has lost his mojo and the championship lead he held for most of the year. He has run out of answers to Hamilton. Psychologically, the 2008 world champion must now be streets ahead.
Although Hamilton has made his own mistakes in a fraught championship battle, it is now his team-mate who is racking up the blunders. Last night he was ruing an “unnecessary” error, locking up at the first corner and effectively ending his chance of victory. With three rounds remaining, double points in the final race may prove his saving grace. That preposterous rule is hanging over this championship like President Vladimir Putin’s involvement in this heavily politicised Russian Grand Prix yesterday. In ordinary circumstances, a 17-point lead at this late stage of the year would put Hamilton comfortably in the driving seat. Not so this time.
It is quite conceivable that Hamilton could win the next three races, taking his tally for the year to 11, retire at the final round in Abu Dhabi, allowing Rosberg to sweep to the title. It would be the grossest of sporting injustices. No wonder Hamilton hardly exuded confidence last night.
“No, I don’t [feel in control],” he said. “It’s a very positive feeling to have points and be finishing ahead of Nico, but history has shown this year a gap can never be enough. I never did have a comfortable feeling when I was in a championship. It’s tense all the way to the end and this is a championship that is going to go to the end. I just hope that the future is bright for the next three races.”
Through the many trials and tribulations this year he has matured into a more complete, and most importantly, unflappable, driver. The records have kept on tumbling. Yesterday he equalled Nigel Mansell’s tally of 31 wins, making him jointly the most successful British Formula One driver in history, in terms of race victories. He also became only the fourth driver to win nine races in a season yesterday, and joined Michael Schumacher in being the only person to manage four wins in a row, twice in a year.
After signing for Mercedes at their lowest ebb in the second half of 2012, Hamilton, 29, has positioned himself as the natural leader of the team. Congratulating the mechanics once he had hopped out of the car, it seemed as if both sides know they are in safe hands. They were rewarded with a first constructors’ championship; almost inevitable since Rosberg’s win in Australia on March 16. Niki Lauda, the Mercedes F1 chairman, came over at 6pm sharp to inform Hamilton it was time to leave on his chartered airline. He looks and feels like the star man once more. Ross Brawn, the now-departed architect of it all, will have returned home from one of his fishing trips with a satisfied smile.
As far as the race went, trawling through the replays revealed a soporific affair, living up to the dreary surroundings. The most rousing element was the will-he-won’t-he question regarding Putin’s arrival. In the end he arrived midway through. He did not miss much.
When the lights when out, Rosberg made the better getaway, slipstreaming his team-mate round the long first turn. He ducked out to the right and dived down the inside, putting himself in prime position. After fiddling with a few switches, however, he locked all four tyres, producing plumes of white smoke. He scurried across the run-off and was swiftly ordered to hand the place back.
That was not the nadir for Rosberg. The mistake had obliterated his tyres. “I have to pit because of vibrations,” he said, agitatedly. At this stage, with 52 laps to complete on one set of tyres, it seemed like an unmitigated disaster. While Hamilton eased clear, Rosberg was at the very back.
It merely accentuated their comparative proficiency in wheel-to-wheel combat, evident on numerous occasions this year. In Bahrain, while both acknowledged Rosberg was the faster man, the German could not find a way through in their epic duel. In August at Spa-Francorchamps, a clumsy, overzealous move left him on the receiving end of widespread condemnation.
Yesterday was a far more subtle illustration of the on-track dynamic between these two. Given the superiority of this Mercedes, it was no surprise to see Rosberg successfully climb his way up to second by the finish. Elsewhere in a processional 90 minutes racing, Valtteri Bottas drove well to third, as did Jenson Button in fourth. After an effulgent opening lap, his McLaren team-mate Kevin Magnussen drove solidly to take fifth. However, no one was as comfortable as Hamilton. Untroubled and unphased, he strolled to victory. Barring mechanical disaster in Abu Dhabi, a long overdue second championship is edging closer.