The Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team have been top of the class again in 2016, taking both drivers and constructors titles as their domination of Formula One’s current set of regulations continued for the third year in a row. In a record-breaking season in which the Brackley-based marque took nineteen victories, the only imperfection was internal rivalry after yet another stellar season from the Silver Arrows.
The season-long tussle for the driver’s world championship between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton came to a head on more than one occasion and had team boss Toto Wolff contemplating how to ensure his two drivers were toeing the party line. The Mercedes hierarchy mostly managed their drivers well as they navigated a public relations minefield and potential implosion.
Mechanical failures and on-track collisions served as the main factors posing any sort of risk to their dominance over the course of the season. Their rivals were forced to get creative with strategy in order to wrestle control from Mercedes, however upsets were few and far between. Following a tense and intoxicating final race in the desert of Abu Dhabi, it was Rosberg who emerged victorious in the championship after employing the type of consistent performance that saw him top the standings for the majority of the year.
Rosberg starts as he means to go on
The opening round of the season in Melbourne saw the Mercedes duo lock out the front row, issuing a statement of intent for their rivals that indicated they had not sat back and relaxed over the winter break. If the first qualifying session set the tone for the season, then lights out at Albert Park also proved to be an ominous affair. Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen of Scuderia Ferrari got the jump on Rosberg and Hamilton at the start, and Ferrari’s four-time world champion looked odds-on for victory only to have it taken away by a stoppage to the session caused by a heavy collision between Fernando Alonso and Esteban Gutierrez.
The decision of Mercedes to put their German driver on Medium tyres meant that Vettel would have to build a big enough gap for a pit stop once he was forced to get rid of his Supersofts. He couldn’t build the gap and the subsequent tyre change put him into third behind Rosberg and Hamilton as the chequered flag fell. This was the first and by no means last of questionable strategic decisions from the Scuderia in 2016.
The new season was now in full swing and Nico Rosberg took the top step of the podium in Bahrain, China and Russia as he extended his string of consecutive wins to seven. Lewis Hamilton struggled for consistency in comparison. The Briton was unfortunate in the season’s early exchanges as he suffered through a mixture of reliability issues and racing skirmishes to finish third, seventh and second in events controlled by Rosberg. Another poor start and collision with the Williams Martini Racing of Valtteri Bottas in Sakhir was compounded by engine issues during qualifying in Shanghai, forcing him to start last on the grid. The beginning of the season was dominated by Rosberg and in comparison it was a damage limitation exercise for Hamilton as he struggled to get a meaningful defence of his championship underway.
Calamity in Catalunya as Red Bull pick up the pieces
The following round at the Circuit de Catalunya was without doubt the team’s worst of the season. What looked like a second one-two in the space of two weeks following qualifying descended into pandemonium as Hamilton and Rosberg came together on entry into turn four, both cars to sliding into the gravel trap and out of the race.
Hamilton qualified on pole position but was yet again beaten on the run down to turn one. Rosberg, leading, was in the incorrect engine mode which allowed his team-mate to close up on him through the long right-hander of turn three. As the German covered him off, Hamilton was forced to take to the grass in order to maintain momentum and the turf sent him spinning into Rosberg and out of the race.
The incident confirmed that this year Nico Rosberg had adopted a more aggressive wheel-to-wheel strategy although in this case it seemed a little too much even if the race stewards viewed it as a racing incident.
In the following two races, Lewis Hamilton claimed victory in Monaco and Montreal as he looked to salvage his championship defence. The win in Monte-Carlo was handed to Hamilton by Red Bull Racing during an ill-fated Daniel Ricciardo pit stop but the Briton wouldn’t have cared as some much needed good luck finally came his way to kick-start his season. It seemed an age since his last win, but it provided a glimmer of hope for Hamilton fans.
At the Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve, Hamilton’s fortunes improved further as he qualified on pole and took victory albeit after recovering from the increasingly inevitable slow start. Sebastian Vettel looked likely to be victor at one point until Ferrari’s pit wall intervened to switch him and Raikkonen onto a two-stop strategy. This proved to be “wrong” as team principal Maurizio Arrivabene reiterated after the race in which Hamilton comfortably got to the end of the race in the lead with a singular trip to the pit box.
In stark contrast to Hamilton’s accomplished performance in Canada, his qualifying performance in the sport’s first event in Azerbaijan left much to be desired. His raw pace was as evident as ever and he looked set to claim another pole position ahead of his team-mate following practice. However, an error-strewn qualifying session not only saw him glance the wall, but he also had to replace one of his tyres for the race after a big lock-up in Q2. Hamilton started tenth and struggled to fifth following engine issues during the race as Rosberg scurried off to claim a lonely victory out front. It was a European Grand Prix to forget for Hamilton, but little did Mercedes know, more testing times lay just around the corner.
An Austrian nightmare for Toto on home soil
The Austrian Grand Prix weekend in Spielberg is one that Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda will not look back on fondly. Much like the Spanish Grand Prix, the team looked set to complete a one-two and walk away from the Red Bull Ring with the maximum 43 points added to their tally. However, as the race entered its final lap, Lewis Hamilton was catching his team-mate at a vast rate of knots and was handed a decent run at Rosberg following a mistake from the latter at turn one.
As the two approached the second corner, Hamilton was forced to attempt the overtake around the outside. Rosberg took the usual racing line, however TV footage of the duo navigating the turn conclusively showed that the German did not turn and take the corner as usual, running Hamilton out of road as the two collided. Descending into pandemonium from a position of relative comfort proved too much for Toto Wolff, branding the incident “brainless” as he vented his fury at the situation.
Rosberg fell to fourth as he wrestled a wounded Silver Arrow across the line and was lucky to retain the position following a punishment from the stewards. Hamilton was deemed the innocent party and took the top step of the podium but the Mercedes hierarchy were not at all pleased as the clash further intensified the scrutiny upon them. It was extremely testing times for Mercedes, however they were managing the situation very well indeed. Their stance did not change, and they allowed their drivers to freely race as before, trusting that there would be no repeat of the Austrian chaos.
The victory in the Styrian mountains re-ignited Lewis Hamilton’s title push as he buried the memories of his off-weekend in Baku. Hamilton is widely viewed throughout the paddock as being the more accomplished gladiator in wheel-to-wheel combat and his prevailing in the chaos in Austria only served to enhance this school of thought. The pendulum swung further in Hamilton’s direction over the next series of races as Hamilton took home the spoils in Great Britain, Hungary and Germany to take a 19 point lead into the Summer break.
The Silver Arrows locked out the front row of the grid in all three races, with Rosberg on pole at the Hungaroringand Hockenheim, but less than ideal starts and a couple of other factors put pay to his ambitions. At Silverstone, he crossed the line second to Hamilton but was demoted to third after receiving information over team radio that contravened the infamous radio ban. Mercedes initially considered lodging an appeal on safety grounds but later withdrew this, allowing the demotion to stand.
Hamilton claimed the lead from his team-mate at the starts in both the Hungarian and German Grands Prix. The Mercedes, in a class of its own in its almost inevitable Sunday afternoon stroll out front, allowed Hamilton to control his pace and was largely untroubled as he drove off into the distance. The W07 was untouchable at the front of the field. Its rivals were unable to creep up to its gearbox as its flawless performance in clear air had no equal. The car did have its weaknesses, however, in both its start procedures and its ability to follow a rival machine in its turbulent air.
Rosberg trailed home fourth in his homeland as a sluggish start and five second penalty for pushing Verstappen off the track compounded his misery following another Lewis Hamilton masterclass. Heading into the Summer break, most assumed that Hamilton would go on to claim his fourth world championship after reversing a 43 point deficit post-Russia to a 19-point cushion after this race. Rosberg bemoaned a “crap” race and all evidence pointed towards Hamilton beating his team-mate once again. The Summer break couldn’t come quickly enough for Rosberg and the period would prove vital if he was to rescue his title bid.
The momentum swings again
If the German ever needed a pick-me-up, it was now. It came. Due to the aforementioned engine issues and changes for Hamilton earlier on in the season, the Briton had exceeded his limit of parts allowed for one driver and therefore incurred a 55 place grid penalty for the second half curtain raiser at Spa-Francorchamps. Rosberg edged out Max Verstappen to claim his sixth pole position of the season, but the Red Bulls and Ferraris were closer than expected after setting their hot laps.
Hamilton labelled Rosberg’s subsequent victory a “Sunday afternoon stroll” as he toiled to a well-earned third place. This proved to be a decent result for Hamilton as he again called upon his damage limitation mode to mitigate the impacts of his grid drop. His lead in the championship was sliced to nine points but the weekend was certainly better than it could have been as the safety car proved to be a friend.
Hamilton’s apparent inability to get to grips with the season’s revised start procedures came back to haunt him once again at the following round in Monza as his poor getaway from pole caused him to be swamped by his fellow drivers as they approached turn one. His fightback from sixth to second as the race finished was commendable, however it was a bitter pill to swallow for Hamilton as Rosberg took victory even though he was a considerably slower than the Briton over the course of the weekend. Hamilton’s elation heading into the Summer break seemed like a distant memory as the tables were turned yet again and the two were now only separated by a couple of points in the world championship.
If the Italian Grand Prix was memorable for Hamilton for all the wrong reasons, the following round in Singapore only served to rub salt in the wounds. Nico Rosberg was peerless on Saturday to take another pole position, but it was Hamilton’s off-day that grabbed the headlines as his quick lap was only good enough for the second row. He started and finished the race in third, but it was a strategy call from his team that came to his aid as he had been passed by Kimi Raikkonen for track position and the last podium place.
The decision to bolt on a fresh set of boots forced a Red Bull response, strapping new tyres on second-placed Daniel Ricciardo to cover off Hamilton who had undercut the Iceman. Mercedes opted not to pit their lead man as his advantage over the Australian was not large enough, and the German driver crossed the finish line first by the skin of his teeth, edging a resurgent Ricciardo on Supersofts by half a second.
It was a mystifying weekend for Hamilton fans, and their man now had an eight point deficit in the championship. It was obvious that this year was different, and the consistency in Rosberg’s performances that was missing before had emerged this year. He had ironed out the mistakes and it was paying off. The chasm between the Silver Arrows and the other teams looked as wide as ever, and it was clear that they would have no real challenge bar inclement weather or Hamiton-Rosberg wheel-bashing each other into submission.
Hamilton, like his team-mate a few races previous, was forced to embark on a soul-searching mission in order to steer the ship back on course as the season started to drift slightly beyond even his incredible abilities.
Hamilton’s reprieve goes up in smoke
The man is not a triple world champion for nothing, however and at the Malaysian Grand Prix he mastered the Sepang circuit to record a pole lap nearly half a second quicker than his rival. It was his way of demonstrating that his raw speed would carry him home, and the difference between the two was resounding. In the race, events seemed to be going his way too. Early contact between countrymen Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg left the latter with the task of weaving his way through the field, and to his credit, he did an admirable job of it.
As Hamilton was cruising out front, disaster befell his season yet again, and the TV feed replayed his exasperated message of “no, no, no” as his Mercedes unit blew itself apart. Hamilton was left a broken man on the side of the track as Daniel Ricciardo took the victory and Rosberg crossed the line third. An outpouring of emotion and accusation post-race provoked Mercedes into a staunch self-defence as they lay accused by some of sabotage to hand the title to their German number six.
The comments flung at the Mercedes team were batted away by anyone with an ounce of intelligence but Mercedes were hurt after yet another mechanical fault for their starlet. Hamilton was inconsolable in the pen after the race and in the heat of the moment did little to back up the organisation that has handed him two of his three championships.
The Silver Arrows are champions again
The Racing Gods it seemed were adamant that this year’s spoils were to end up on the other side of the garage, and the mental strain on the Mercedes duo was becoming increasingly clear. Rosberg became more withdrawn, whereas Hamilton’s emotions surfaced in a bizarre Thursday press conference in which in a clear bid to deflect all hurt from the previous race, he offended half of the world’s media and was on a mission to alienate himself. As journalists from many of the world’s largest media outlets gathered to unravel his thoughts leading into the race at Suzuka, he spent an unusually large proportion of the questioning hidden behind his phone. It seemed as if this year, roles were reversed and it was Hamilton with his hand over the self destruct button.
He fared little better during the rest of the weekend. Rosberg stuck it on pole, and yet another poor Hamilton getaway stifled his attempts at reducing Rosberg’s advantage. The German knew that should he claim victory at Suzuka, the run-in would be mathematically in his hands and he could follow Hamilton home and take the world championship. He drove a faultless race to duly take victory and as Hamilton could not manoeuvre his way round the wide Red Bull of Max Verstappen, he could even afford one third place finish in the final four rounds of the season. Nico Rosberg suddenly found himself in unfamiliar territory: he had control of his own fate and could beat Hamilton in a championship battle for the first time. He could be forgiven for tightening up and therefore not being as quick, but he maintained his mantra of taking one race at a time and going for the win.
The Japanese Grand Prix was another landmark moment for the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team that they could add to their ever-expanding list of honours. By bringing home the cars first and third, they had secured the 2016 Constructors Championship. The result underlined the dominance that the team had exerted over the sport over the past three years and was just rewards for an incredible performance not just from drivers and track-side operations, but also the hundreds of people at Brackley, Brixworth and Stuttgart.
The permutations for Hamilton and Rosberg were now obvious. Lewis Hamilton had to effectively win all four remaining races to stand a chance of becoming a four-time world champion in 2016. He set about his task with a steely determination and never say die attitude. After all, he had overcome larger deficits earlier in the season than the 33 point gap he had to bridge at this point.
Unstoppable Hamilton takes it to Abu Dhabi
In the three races leading up to the season finale, with all the pressure off his shoulders and knowing what was required to keep his slender hopes alive, we witnessed Lewis Hamilton in the form of his life. He was untouchable, and secured a triple of lights to flag victories from pole position that had many pondering what if. What if he hadn’t had poor starts? What if he didn’t suffer from mechanical gremlins? What if he was not handed an inexplicable number of grid penalties? Hamilton knew, though, that dwelling on the past would only hamper his charge and put his bad luck behind him.
Hamilton’s first win since the German Grand Prix prior to the Summer break came at a circuit at which he has always been strong. He had an uneventful United States Grand Prix out front, and at one point it looked as if his team-mate was only going to bring home third position. Rosberg lost second place to Daniel Ricciardo at the start, but was one of the beneficiaries of the virtual safety car and was effectively handed a free pit stop to undercut the Australian. Ricciardo expressed his disappointment over team radio and Hamilton questioned when his challenger’s good luck would run out following the showdown.
In Mexico, Hamilton was fortunate to be leading following the first corner as he locked up and cut turn one. Any advantage gained was neutralised by the deployment of the safety car and the stewards opted against penalising him for the excursion. Once this decision had been made, the result never looked under threat and the chaos that ensued took place behind him. Rosberg survived an onslaught from Max Verstappen and took a very important second place. He was doing enough to keep his team-mate at arm’s length and it is a testament to the Mercedes team that no team had bridged the development gap in the second half of the season and he was pretty much ensured of at least second place.
Formula One has seen many a championship-defining race at the Brazilian Grand Prix venue of Interlagos. Friday and Saturday gave us the same old, with the Silver Arrows locking out the front row of the grid. Hamilton claimed his eleventh pole position of the season. Considering his aforementioned issues early on in the season, it was a minor miracle that Hamilton had out-qualified the number six car over the season. Sunday was a completely different beast altogether.
The forecast rain showers arrived a couple of hours before the session and persisted almost interrupted until the end of the session. The delayed start was conducted under the safety car and the cars remained in formation until racing was underway. The Red Bull of Max Verstappen was in fine form as he drove around the outside of Nico Rosberg in the stop-start session. The interruptions of the red flags were an unwelcome distraction, however Lewis Hamilton was unstoppable out front. He streaked away from his team-mate and his pace forced Red Bull’s hand into a gamble on intermediate tyres to usurp the Briton, however this relegated their Dutchman to far down the pack. An incredible spate of overtakes in the closing stages saw him surge back to third but Rosberg breathed a sigh of relief as he again took the second step on the podium.
Hamilton and Rosberg face-off in the season finale
Both Hamilton and Rosberg were aware of the requirements for either of them to clinch the driver’s championship at the final race of the season, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Heading into the weekend at the Yas Marina Circuit,Hamilton trailed his team-mate by twelve points. If Rosberg finished Sunday afternoon with a place on the podium, he would collect his maiden drivers’ title. Something untoward must occur if the Briton stood a realistic chance of retaining his title and much of the focus pre-race was what tactics Hamilton would employ in an attempt to engineer a result.
In a special Hamilton-Rosberg press conference, Hamilton played down any suggestion of backing up his team-mate should find himself ahead in the race. He instead reiterated his focus on the qualifying session and letting his driving do the talking. Rosberg, too, was coy on his potential crowning as champion. He was tight-lipped, using the same tactic as he had all year: going for the win. It was a suffocating atmosphere and as both abstained from shaking hands for the press, they were solely focused on their racing.
Saturday came and predictably the Silver Arrows locked out the front row of the grid. Lewis Hamilton was again in a class of one in the session, taking pole position with relative ease as he reminded the world of his blistering raw pace. Come Sunday, however, and pace alone would not end with him stealing the championship from Rosberg’s clutches. He would need to either rely on disaster befalling the German, or be proactive and attempt to influence proceedings himself. In contrast to much of the year, the opening crawl from the grid down to turn one proved to be routine and the two emerged from the corner as they had started. Max Verstappen’s spin at the start consigned him to a one stop race. An unusually large first stint ensured he had track position after Rosberg’s first pit stop, and the German was informed that it would be “vital” for him to pass the young Dutchman.
Rosberg set about obeying the instruction, and soon enough he had made a decisive move around the outside. This was more evidence that we were seeing a better Nico Rosberg than ever before. Faced with a daunting challenge and with his championship flashing before his eyes, he delivered what was asked of him and immediately the pressure decreased, if only for a short time.
As the laps passed, it dawned on Hamilton that he would need to dig deep and use all of his natural racing skill if he was to claim a third championship in a row. He expertly limited his own pace to not just force Rosberg in his dirty air, but also stay ahead just far enough to prevent his team-mate making best use of DRS. As was his intention, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and the Red Bull of Max Verstappen were catching.
By now, a steady stream of radio chatter was being exchanged between both Mercedes and their pit wall. Pete Bonnington, Hamilton’s race engineer, attempted to intervene with the “instruction” that Hamilton speed up. Rosberg was exasperated in his communication, asking the team to initiate a position swap with his rival as the two behind were bearing down upon him. Hamilton, aware that his already slim chances were thinning by the second, persisted in his attempt to derail Rosberg’s race. Eventually, the instruction came from Executive Director (Technical) Paddy Lowe for the Briton to speed up, and again he resisted, insisting that the team make good on their season-long promise to let them race.
The last few laps were excruciating for Rosberg, however he was in no mood to succumb to the pressure and surrender his title. The top two crossed the line as they began, and Formula One had its newest world champion. After the relentless see-sawing of momentum and form throughout the season, the dice eventually landed on Rosberg and the emotion was obvious in the hours following the season end.
Domination, but Mercedes still on their toes
For a season in which the team has been so dominant, it has by no means been devoid of drama. The rest of the field may not have been able to run them close, however a season that could have been plain sailing was anything but as the rivalry between Hamilton and Rosberg threatened to rip the team apart at the seams.
In order to maximise performance in the cut-throat world of F1, teams often tread a very thin line between success and failure. To find the minuscule fractions of time that catapult you past rival teams, cars are run at the maximum that is ever-so-close to spectacular failure. The balancing act of the Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry served as a sufficient metaphor for this as the season progressed.
Mercedes had their work cut out, especially following Spain and Austria. They did a sterling job leading up to Abu Dhabi, reiterating that the goalposts had not changed, and their men were free to race as they had in previous seasons. Their attempts to influence proceedings in Abu Dhabi were somewhat naive, and contradicting their prior mantra saw them with egg on their face, however the retirement of world champion Nico Rosberg sees them face bigger issues heading into the uncertainty of 2017.
The appointment of the driver in their vacant seat is a decision not to be taken lightly, and there are numerous factors for the hierarchy to consider before naming the man to partner Lewis Hamilton. The scrutiny will only continue, but that is the price you pay for being the best and it has been another brilliant year in Brackley.
Featured Image: Motorsport.com
I wrote this piece for The Checkered Flag – please click here to see the article on their website.