Tuesday, 14 April 2015

#F1: Mind games in China

Today's Chinese Grand Prix may have been described as 'unremarkable' or even 'dull' by many fans, but it has added some interesting new details to the overall narrative of this 2015 Formula 1 season.  Following a somewhat unexpected challenge from a resurgent Ferrari team who ended up taking victory in Malaysia two weekends ago, Mercedes were back on top in Shanghai, and it was more or less 'business as usual' for Lewis Hamilton, with the World Champion Qualifying on Pole, leading every lap of the Grand Prix and taking the win at the end.

However, the continually shifting dynamics of Hamilton's relationship with his teammate Nico Rosberg have been fascinating to follow so far this season, and this weekend was no exception.  As I wrote after the race in Malaysia, Rosberg has seemed cowed and timid compared to last year, seeming still to be suffering the psychological effects of losing the Championship to his teammate last year – Hamilton, by contrast, has been confident and self-assured.  I think the Mercedes team have noticed this too, and there have been plenty of reports that Rosberg was told to 'toughen up' and be 'more aggressive' for the race in China.  He certainly changed his approach in response to this – but it was a disaster for him.

I think Hamilton and Rosberg are intrinsically different characters.  Of course, this is no bad thing – and it doesn't mean that either man's mindset is empirically 'better' or 'worse' than the other's.  Last year, stable, unflappable Rosberg often seemed to have a psychological edge over the more emotional Hamilton; his calm, steely demeanour meant he was better able to deal with setbacks, and the pressures of fighting a close title battle with his teammate and friend, than Hamilton, whose volatility often left him vulnerable and exposed.  To put it simply, Rosberg raced with his head while Hamilton raced with his heart.

Unfortunately for Rosberg, now that Hamilton has beaten him to the title once, he is struggling to come to terms with that.  He feels like a Number 2 driver – and so, he acts like one, and he races like one.

I mentioned after Malaysia about how 'jittery' Rosberg seemed – especially in the way that he seemed to be always on the radio to his team asking for more information about what was going on in the race.  In trying to be 'more aggressive' this time out, he simply came over as surly and sulky.  I think Rosberg has (mistakenly) interpreted the team's instructions to be more aggressive as telling him to be more like Hamilton – and, not being cut from the same cloth as his teammate, this approach isn't working for him.

Rosberg needs to be his own man, and race his own way.  He needs to return to the mindset he had last year – that although they are very different in many ways, he is Hamilton's equal, and is capable of beating him on merit.  At the moment, Rosberg doesn't seem to be able to believe he is capable of beating his teammate, and that lack of belief is manifesting itself either in a strange timidity which we have been unused to seeing from the German, or in a morose demeanour which may make people want to stay well clear of him on track, but certainly isn't helping him go any faster.

Nico Rosberg is a very good racing driver, with plenty of strengths of his own.  It may be difficult for him to keep faith in his own way of doing things, having been (as he will no doubt see it) bested last season by Hamilton's 'heart-on-his-sleeve' approach.  But at the moment, he is not comfortable in his own skin, and that translates to being uncomfortable in the car; he is still pulling in the results at the moment, because the Mercedes is still the best overall package in the paddock, but the team won't put up with a sulky, malcontent, underperforming driver forever.

Rosberg has the potential to be a World Champion, but he needs to stop comparing himself to Hamilton and rediscover his belief in himself as a driver if he is ever to realise that potential.  The longer this saga goes on, the less likely it becomes that he will achieve that goal this season – and the affects of losing out to Hamilton two years running could finish him off.  Is it 'now or never' for Nico?

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