One would think that sport based on extreme speed wouldn’t usually be lacking in excitement. But for the past couple of years, the competitive edge in Formula 1 was getting duller as one team – Mercedes – dominated. What made it even more blunt was Mercedes’ diktat against inter-team racing; either former champion Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg got the team’s full support to push for the win depending on the conditions, never both.
But that changed as the biggest, most influential aspect of the entertaining 2016 season came before the season started –when Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said that the team would allow both Hamilton and Rosberg more freedom to compete against each other. In fact, Mercedes swapped several mechanics around from each side of the garage before the season, in a bid to end the divide that had been growing over the previous two seasons.
With this new decree, we got a rare instance of teammates slugging out, and what a slug fest it has been over the last eight months across 20 races. It is this gritty fight to the finish between Hamilton and Rosberg — despite the lack of outside competition — that has made the current Formula 1 immensely watchable and entertaining.
While the team’s monopoly at the top is intact – they have already won the Constructor’s Championship, their decision to brew this inter-team rivalry has given the sport a fresh lease of life. Gone are the foregone conclusions of Rosberg or Hamilton starting on pole, and this season's re-established competition saw them actually crashing out right at the start in Spain.
This tussle was expected – Hamilton is a three-time champion, who has always fought tooth-and-nail, on or off the track. But Rosberg is no rookie, having been with Mercedes since 2010, and is in fact the same age as Hamilton.
Of course, the race between the two is nothing new, as they have finished at the top for the last two years as well. But this time, the tables have turned. In a rather ill-tempered season – collisions, crashes, sabotage allegations, Snapchat and snap comments – Rosberg has steered away to a sizeable lead, not once but twice.
What has made it even more exciting is the fact this battle of pace and wits between the Briton and German has come right down to the wire – to the final race in Abu Dhabi – and it’s so close that one misstep could decide the title in the season finale.
With a relatively crucial 12-point lead over his teammate, Rosberg, the runner-up for the past two seasons, has well and truly made this season his. While both have won nine races each this year – with Hamilton notching wins in the last three races to stay in contention – it is Rosberg who has finished in the top three in 15 of 20 races this season, including the past eight.
What has been even more remarkable is the fact that at the summer break, Rosberg trailed Hamilton by 19 points – after leading by 43 points in the first five races of the season – but then fortunes changed again to pit Hamilton 12 points adrift with one last race to go.
Both the Rosberg and Hamilton's road to Abu Dhabi reflects their extreme neck-to-neck and often topsy-turvy season this year. Here’s a quick recap.
The 2016 season started with a Rosberg victory, with Hamilton finishing second in Australia. At Bahrain, Rosberg went on to win his fifth race in a row, while his teammate fought back after a collision to come third. In China, Hamilton had a harrowing time with a seventh place finish while his rival raced to another win. Russia saw Rosberg notch up his seventh consecutive win while Hamilton fought to come second again.
The next race in Spain saw an unprecedented winner in teenage debutant Max Verstappen as both Mercedes drivers collided and had to retire.
Post this debacle, Hamilton won his first race of the season in Monaco, while Rosberg got the short end of the stick to finish seventh. The pattern continued in Canada as the Briton won and the German finished fifth; at Baku, the positions were reversed.
The Austrian GP saw Hamilton win from pole and set the fastest lap, while his rival led for much of the race but finished fourth. At Hamilton’s home GP, the Briton won from pole and Rosberg was penalised dropping him to third. In Hungary, Hamilton won and took the overall lead for the first time this season as Rosberg completes a Mercedes 1-2. Even at Rosberg's home race, Hamilton pipped him for the win as the German finished fourth.
Belgium saw Hamilton penalised and finish third as Rosberg won. The German then took his seventh win of the season and first in Italy, with Hamilton second, and at Singapore, Rosberg celebrated his 200th race by retaking the championship lead after a pole-to-flag win as Hamilton finished third. At Malaysia, Hamilton endured an agonising race, having to retire inches away from a win with an engine failure and Rosberg climbed to third on the podium.
Japan saw Rosberg win – his last win of the season so far – as Hamilton finished third. The three subsequent races – USA, Mexico, and Brazil saw Hamilton race away to victories while Rosberg came second – leaving the standings at Rosberg 367, Hamilton 355 and setting up the grand showdown at Abu Dhabi.
This number crunching gives clearer picture of just why the titles race – although largely between only two out of a field of 22 drivers – has been so ultra competitive.
Of course, the finale will have a lot more factors other than the two drivers and their cars involved. The equation seems fairly simple – Hamilton has to win, while Rosberg has to reach the podium.
But nothing in this year's title fight has been 'simple', as permutations, combinations abound. If Hamilton finishes second, Rosberg needs only a sixth-place, and if Hamilton places third, Rosberg needs eighth. Anything less than a podium for Hamilton means Rosberg is champion regardless of where he places.
And then there is the possibility of a tie – if Rosberg were to finish seventh and Hamilton second, the two would be tied on points and also level on both wins and second places. In that case, Hamilton would win on a countback to third places. If Hamilton is fourth and Rosberg fails to score, the two would end up level on points with nine wins each. Rosberg would then win on a countback to second places.
But there are several other external aspects to consider. Will ‘Mad Max’ in his quest for the fourth position against Sebastian Vettel manage to hinder the Mercedes drivers? Will another series of unfortunate events force either Mercedes driver to retire? (A retirement will be fatal for both.) Can they end up tied? Will Mercedes, in contradiction with their pre-season directive, favour one driver or the other? Can the other drivers – dangerously consistent Daniel Ricciardo, or even Vettel or Verstappen pip them? Will the Grand Prix play out without accidents and interruptions?
Irrespective, in the end it will all come down to the 55 laps at Abu Dhabi. But before the final chapter of the exciting Hamilton vs Rosberg showdown begins, let’s appreciate the truly competitive, gritty season Formula 1 has given us in 2016.
With inputs from agencies