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2016 Chinese GP wrap: Rosberg in charge, Hamilton stalls

2016-04-18 12:07

NOT LETTING UP: Nico Rosberg tightens his grip on the 2016 Championship. Will Hamilton make a comeback? Image: AP / Rob Griffith

Egmont Sippel

Shangai - It was 20 years ago, today / Sgt Pepper taught the band to play...

Lewis Hamilton might find it interesting that compatriots of his, called The Beatles, recorded this immortal line on their seminal psychedelic album titled Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, almost half a century ago. 

Hamilton might, however, find it less reassuring that another of his compatriots, Nigel Mansell, provided a blueprint of how to upset the apple cart exactly thirty years ago.

In 2016 Hamilton might be in the same boat following the Chinese GP. 

Struggling in 2016?

After just three races of the 2016 campaign, he’s in deep trouble and that’s not what the script seemed to suggest after a stunning qualifying run in Oz, where Lewis started the new season on a high.

A photo posted by FORMULA 1® (@f1) on

Here’s what was so significant about The Hammer’s initial blitzkrieg Down Under: it broke a spell of dominance by Rosberg that started virtually straight after the FIA’s tyre pressure check-up on the Monza grid, where the Mercedes cars had been found to run under-inflated tyres.

Rosberg ended 2015 by consistently outqualifying Hamilton, rattling off six poles on the trot and converting three of them – the final three – into victory. But for a silly little wobble in America, it would have been four chequered flags on the spin. Add to this Nico’s trio of comfortable victories in the opening phase of the present campaign, and the reading looks pretty good for the German and pretty bad for the Englishman. 

Was it not for Hamilton’s poles in Australia and Bahrain, and it would have looked a whole lot worse, still. 

For here was the question at the completion of 2015: Did the minimum tyre pressures have an effect on the performance of the two Mercedes drivers?

Results seem to suggest that it might have had. Rosberg even talked about “having found something small”, although he declined to mention what it was.

Hamilton, on the other hand, wrote off his dip in late season form against the relief of winning the world title. He relaxed, he said, after joining the greats of the game by winning the US Grand Prix in Austin to clinch his third crown. 

It was important, therefore, that he got the upper hand against Rosberg straight out of the box as the new season kicked off in Australia. It would have restored his confidence, if it needed to be restored, but more importantly, it would have dented Rosberg’s. 

All those races in which he nailed Lewis, the German would have had to wonder . . . Was it just because Hamilton had taken his finger off the trigger? And was the gun now cocked to annihilate him in 2016?

The script seemed to suggest so, in Oz. When it came down to the business end of qualifying, Hamilton blitzed Rosberg by almost half a second.

Game over? 

Or perhaps not. Hamilton has now been involved in first corner fracas in all of 2016’s opening laps. Not all of it was of his own doing. The Mercedes clutch seemed to have cost him in Australia and Bahrain, and the technical glitches that beset his car over the weekend launched him straight into the chaos that resulted in China’s Turn One, basically after Raikkonen ran in too deep and collected himself only after Vettel and Kvyat had put their noses into the inside gap.

For Seb to then accuse Daniil of driving like a madman was a bit rich. That’s what racers do, or that’s what they are supposed to do: Go for the gap.

“When you don’t go for the gap,” Ayrton Senna once said so memorably, “you’re not a racer anymore.”
So, what Kvyat did was, strictly speaking, according to the ultimate script. He barged into the gap left on the inside of both Ferraris, without losing control or without exerting undue pressure on Vettel to “make space” and clip Kimi. 

If anything, Vettel got a fright and slightly turned out of Turn One at the exact same moment that Kimi found grip again and turned back onto the racing line.

A racing incident, nothing more – and great opportunistic driving by the young Kvyat who is showing up quite well against the sensational Daniel Ricciardo in the other Red Bull. 

What a pity that they can’t compete at the sharp end of the field consistently, something that Lewis is finding rather difficult to do right now.

Pole in Oz. Slow get-away. Caught in the bunch in Turn 1.
Pole in Bahrain. Slow get-away. Clipped in Turn 1.
Car problems in China. Problems in Turn 1.
And suddenly he is 36 points down on team mate Rosberg.

But not only that: Just like Piquet was fighting an Englishman in an English team, Lewis is 36 points down on a German in a German team.

The season ahead

Look at it this way: It will take six races for Hamilton to wipe out the present deficit and enjoy a points lead, if the Mercedes drivers consistently finish 1-2, with Lewis on the top step of the podium.  

That will more or less take us to the half-way point of the season, after which the defending champ will have plenty of time to win his third title in a row.

But we know that this is not how it will pan out.

Hamilton might have been a lot quicker in Oz quali than Rosberg. But in Bahrain, he was just 77/100’s quicker when it counted, after Nico had been the faster Merc driver all weekend long, a feat which the German – in a German car – had repeated in China, even before Hamilton’s car failure in quali.

Might there then be something in the script that the world champion is not aware of?

Well, there is something in the script, not so? Rosberg has started the year faultlessly which is not what one can say about Hamilton at all, even though he has nicked two poles.

Whether the world champion is aware of that something in the script – which, from his perspective, might look rather sinister – now, that might be a completely different question.

Hamilton is, outwardly, at least, super confident in his own abilities to outrun any other driver in F1. And yes, there is a long way to go in this, the first 21 race season in F1 history.

But, if The Hammer is still unaware of the fact that Rosberg has been quicker all weekend long in Bahrain and all weekend long in China, he would need to shed his ultra-cool demeanour under pressure, as of late, and start waking up to the fact that he is up against a German driver in a German team, doing to him what an English driver in an English team did to the 1986 title favourite.

Which is to use fate to swing the momentum and win the inter-team battle and with it also the 2016 F1 world title.

That, at least, is what the script suggests at this early point in the season.

The old Kyalami

Here’s what we’re driving at: Nigel had been with Lotus from 1980-1984. In 1985, he switched to Williams. At the back-end of 1985, he managed to win his first two Grands Prix, respectively at Brands Hatch and Kyalami. Mansell’s pole at Kyalami was awesome to behold, especially as he kissed the outside wall, coming out of Leeukop which, in the old days, ran with the clock. 

The cars would blast up the short hill out of the Esses, turn hard right into Leeukop (which basically was a hairpin with a fast, open exit), and then unleashed 1010kW in qualifying trim to hit the Kink flat out, before searing down the longest straight in F1, reaching 300km/h-plus in the downhill dip just after the Dunlop Bridge, before slamming on the anchors for Crowthorne.

It needed big kahunas, the old Kyalami.

Now, if nothing else, Nigel Mansell was the owner of two potently big ones. When he smashed his way to pole at Silverstone, many years later in 1992, to out-qualify team mate Patrese by 1.9 seconds in the actively suspended Williams-Renault, Riccardo walked up to Nigel afterwards, grabbed him in the groin and said: “Sorry compadre, but I just wanted to feel how big they were.”

Mansell was as mighty as ever, in 1985 at Kyalami. Those of us who were there will forever remember the chafe of rubber on concrete, the bang of the left rear rim on a solid wall and the shower of sparks which eventually built up to such a fire storm by the time Mansell had moved on to Ferrari, that the Italians dubbed him Il Leone.

The Lion

In 1985, he was still just Nigel Mansell, who mostly had lived in Keke Rosberg’s shadow for their year as team mates at Williams. Three things changed for 1986: Mansell’s two victories at the back-end of 1985 had upped his confidence; the Honda 1.5-liter V6-turbo really came on song; and double world champion Nelson Piquet joined Williams, from Brabham.

Mansell was supposed to play second fiddle. Piquet was not averse to reminding Nige’ of his standing in the team. He also proceeded to rub it in by promptly outqualifying Mansell to the tune of half a second in their first outing together, in Brazil.

The Englishman then proceeded to tangle with pole sitter Senna during the race and spun off on Lap 3, leaving Piquet to take a comfortable victory on home soil – just as the script had demanded.

In Spain, Piquet again out-qualified Mansell. When he then dropped out of the race, the Englishman used the opportunity to push Senna all the way to the flag, eventually losing out by 0.014 secs. 

This glory was short-lived. At Imola, Piquet again put more than half a second between himself and Mansell on the grid, before outracing the Englishman – just as the script had demanded.

Monaco followed and Piquet – who likened the experience to “riding a motorcycle in your living room” – was never comfortable around the narrow streets of the Principality. He got out-qualified and outraced, but quickly put matters right by taking pole at Spa.

Running away with the race – just as the script had demanded – his turbo blew on Lap 16, which opened the door for Mansell to take victory.

And suddenly, contrary to the demands of the script, Mansell was ahead of Piquet in the championship standings.
The tide had turned. After clearly having been the quicker driver over the opening couple of races, Piquet got outqualified by Mansell in Canada, the Englisman also taking victory before another street race, in Detroit, had Piquet on the ropes once more, after which Mansell squeezed him out in France to stretch the title gap to 38-23.

Piquet briefly fought back in Britain, during the last F1 GP at Brands Hatch, demolishing Mansell in qualifying by almost half a second. In the race, though, Mansell passed him on the run up the hill out of Surtees when Piquet missed a gear.

By now, the Englishman was leading the title chase (with 47 points) from Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, with Piquet (29 points) a distant fourth.

Nelson valiantly fought back, particularly in Hungary, where he advanced his cause through a clever decision on differential settings, plus a brilliant pass on Senna, on the outside going into Turn One, on full opposite lock.

The die had been cast, though. Nigel was an Englishman in an English team. That in itself gave him enough of an edge to take the fight to Prost, who won the title in Australia when Mansell’s left rear tyre gave up the ghost in spectacular fashion. Piquet wasn’t far off, mind you, ending the season on 69 points to Mansell’s 70 and Prost’s 72.

Yet, the Brazilian had been beaten when he was expected to romp away. Bad luck in the early part of the season had him on the back foot for the rest of the season.


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