Few things in sports elicit the passion and drama of great one-on-one rivalries. Bird vs. Magic. Nicklaus vs. Palmer. Navratilova vs. Evert. In F1, the rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg has gone down as the most remarkable, not least because they were teammates. They dominated the sport from 2013 to 2016, bringing glory to Mercedes and stirring up controversy as they went.
Hamilton vs. Rosberg culminated in a stunning 2016 season that saw Rosberg narrowly displace his rival as the Formula One World Champion, giving Mercedes its third consecutive one-two finish. Since many regard Hamilton as the best of all time, the 2016 season seems to illustrate strategy’s superiority over talent– dogged consistency over mercurial genius. But does it? What lessons can we learn about winning from their different approaches and temperaments?
Reputations: Rosberg Was a Thinker, Hamilton a Prodigy
Before the landmark 2016 season, Hamilton and Rosberg carved out different reputations for their approaches. Rosberg was technical, intelligent, and meticulous. He preferred to fine-tune his car as much as possible to manage fuel and tyres better – a better performer in predictable weather.
On the other hand, Hamilton was a bit of an iconoclast, eschewing careful planning and thinking for superior natural skill. Although more even-handed commentators pointed out that the drivers shared similarities, the prevailing judgment was skill and creativity versus deliberate strategy.
Rosberg Finally Unseated Hamilton at Abu Dhabi
On a November evening in 2016, Lewis Hamilton cruised to victory – but lost the World Championship to Rosberg, the second-place finisher. Further complicating matters, Abu Dhabi was Hamilton’s tenth win of the season, whereas Rosberg had won nine. In F1, as in most other sports, the winner usually wins the most contests. But F1 is complex, and the lead-up to the final race played out such that Rosberg had a 12-point lead at the start.
Hamilton’s only hope to remain World Champion was to win in Abu Dhabi and hope that Rosberg did not make the podium. Although he was under team orders (which team chief Toto Wolff had threatened earlier in the season) not to delay Rosberg, Hamilton ignored them and slowed himself to push his teammate back toward Ferrari’s Sebastien Vettel and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. Nevertheless, Rosberg defended well in the closing laps and achieved a second-place finish.
The media, opponents, and even Mercedes brass variously praised and criticised Hamilton’s stratagem. Nevertheless, the brilliant Hamilton had lost to his rival and teammate, and Wolff later conceded that Mercedes should not have put orders in place. Regardless of hindsight, the fact remains that Hamilton won more races (10 to 9), had 12 poles to Rosberg’s 8, and beat Rosberg 11 of the 17 times they competed – and still lost. To be sure, Rosberg showed excellent skill and determination in Abu Dhabi; how did he win while losing?
Some Felt He Was Good but Got Lucky
The idea that Rosberg had a lucky season predated the Abu Dhabi GP. Hamilton himself raised the claim before the race in Mexico City, where Rosberg could have tied up the Championship with a win. Asked by Sky Sports whether Rosberg had evolved since the heartbreaking end of the 2015 season, Hamilton replied, “Nope, but I’ve had a lot of [mechanical] failures. That’s the only difference.”
Hamilton’s reference was to several mechanical issues that plagued his season. Early power unit issues in China and Russia hurt his finishes. Likewise, an inability to fix an engine setting problem as quickly as Rosberg kept him off the podium in Azerbaijan. (In)famously, Hamilton’s engine failed in Malaysia and forced him to retire.
Hamilton went on to win in Mexico and Brazil, with Rosberg finishing second at both venues. This 3-race winning streak (Hamilton had won in the US before Mexico) eroded Rosberg’s lead to 12 points and set up the tense final GP of the season.
After Rosberg’s phenomenal driving to maintain his second-place finish in Abu Dhabi, fans and pundits were split on whether he “deserved” the title of champion. More even-handed appraisals still pointed out that reliability issues eclipsed Hamilton’s talent – the focus was rarely on Rosberg’s quality driving.
Rosberg Made Several Adjustments After the 2015 Season
Despite Hamilton’s claim that Rosberg had not changed (and was benefitting from luck), Rosberg never saw it that way – nor do all the facts support it. After he lost to Hamilton at Austin in 2015, where Hamilton bullied him off the track in the first turn, Rosberg won seven races in a row. These victories included the first four races of the 2016 season.
When asked about Austin’s effect on his mindset, he said, “That was a very decisive point. That first turn and that weekend. I won seven in a row after that! …What happened at Austin was a massive motivation – one of fear. I feared ever experiencing that feeling again.” The truth is that Rosberg had changed, and he planned to hold his ground in 2016.
The Austin 2015 scenario played out again in Spain when Hamilton characteristically asserted himself in Turn 3 to try and pass a slowing Rosberg. However, the latter aggressively closed the door on his teammate, forcing him onto the grass. Hamilton lost control, spun out, and collided with Rosberg, taking both out of the race.
Rosberg’s newfound assertiveness garnered attention, but not all were positive. Jacques Villeneuve opined: “If you want to blame someone, it’s 100%, Nico.” In addition, he took a couple of races to climb back to the top spot, which he did in Azerbaijan.
However, the stewards awarded him a series of penalties; one was for causing another collision with Hamilton in Austria (and drawing criticism from team management), and another for the way he passed Verstappen in Germany. After Germany, Rosberg was 19 points behind Hamilton, who had just won his fourth consecutive race.
The plan reasserted its success, and Rosberg won three of his own on the bounce while Hamilton struggled with consistency, landing the German now 8 points clear at the top. But the defending champion took the pole in Malaysia and looked poised to reduce Rosberg’s hard-won lead yet again.
A blown engine and subsequent poor start in Japan effectively put the Championship out of reach for Hamilton – although his racing genius carried him to four straight victories, including Abu Dhabi. Nevertheless, Rosberg’s tenacity and consistency slowed the erosion of his lead to the smallest possible amount. The rest is history.
Hamilton’s Boldness Influenced Rosberg’s Strategy
Rosberg adopted a plan – he was determined to stand his ground and become more defensively and offensively aggressive. As a result, he showed just a bit of the unpredictability that made Hamilton a perennial threat. In essence, part of his strategy was simple – strategies less.
But he was the racer he had always been – meticulous fine-tuning, expert resource management, etc. He was always known as the more cerebral of the two, but the ones that knew him best as a racer felt he had a vicious competitive streak in 2016. Indeed, he studied philosophy and admitted to going to great lengths to get in Hamilton’s head.
Champions Make Their Luck
So, was it luck or judgment? Probably both. It is impossible to know if Rosberg ever would have unseated Hamilton had he not adopted a slightly less rigid on-track presence. But he did not try to become Hamilton. Rather, he remained the same thoughtful, sophisticated racer who kept to himself and tried to unbalance his opponent – but bolder. Yes, Hamilton had mechanical failures. Yes, Rosberg enjoyed good fortune at times. But at Austin in 2015, Rosberg learned the essential lesson about being a champion. Audentes Fortuna iuvat.