It had come to this. 20 races down, one to go. Only two men could be world champion come the end of the day – Lewis Hamilton, or his Mercedes teammate, Nico Rosberg. Rosberg held the upper hand, leading by 12 points and requiring only a podium finish if Hamilton were to win. Hamilton pumped out a blistering lap to nail pole, and Rosberg did his bit by qualifying second. The stage was set for a tense showdown.
And tense it was. Hamilton and Rosberg both got away well and Rosberg was content to let Hamilton lead. Behind them, Verstappen was tipped into a spin at turn 1 after contact with Hulkenberg, and slipped to the back of the grid, prompting a tactical shift from Red Bull that would reap dividends later on. Meanwhile, the Ferrari of Raikkonen would lurk in the vicinity of Rosberg, who found Hamilton ahead of him to be driving rather slowly. Was Hamilton backing Rosberg up into trouble?
More or less everyone got away cleanly, though Kevin Magnussen sustained some damage that would force him into early retirement. He wouldn’t be alone. Sadly for Jensen Button, his (probably) last ever grand prix would come to an end on lap 12, when he clipped the curb and ended up with his front-right wheel twisted at an awkward angle. Button took it in his stride, and soaked up the adoration of the crowd. I’ll be writing more about Button in another post.
Up front, both Hamilton and Rosberg suffered a little at their first stops, as the Ferraris of Raikkonen and Vettel respectively were coming into the pits just as the Mercs wanted to leave. The end result of this is that Rosberg ended up in third, behind Verstappen, who was making the supersoft tyres last. Hamilton was continuing to drive slowly, backing Verstappen and Rosberg up into the clutches of the cars behind, including Raikkonen, Daniel Ricciardo and Vettel, providing an ongoing measure of discomfort for Rosberg. Once it became clear Red Bull were aiming for a one-stop strategy with Verstappen, Mercedes told Rosberg he needed to pass the teenager quickly, to avoid coming into trouble later on. Rosberg duly delivered, with a bold and brave move into turn 11, having unsettled Verstappen with an effort into turn 8 moments earlier. Verstappen nearly chopped Rosberg in the run down to turn 11, but the pair managed to avoid contact.
Vettel was at one stage leading the race, but the Mercedes duo behind him had by this point made their second stops, and Vettel was unlikely to stretch his soft tyres to the end. Ferrari rolled the dice, more to cover off Red Bull, bringing Vettel in and sticking on supersofts. From that point on, Vettel was the fastest man on track, bearing down on the top five at a tremendous rate of knots, clearing teammate Raikkonen early on and catching Ricciardo fairly quickly.
Up front, Hamilton was very much playing a game. He was backing Rosberg up, into the clutches of Verstappen, though Verstappen would soon find himself under pressure from the flying Vettel. With only a handful of laps remaining, and with Rosberg desperate to avoid trouble, he found himself very much in the thick of bother as Vettel cleared Verstappen and started to make a nuisiance of himself.
Verstappen was starting to fall off at this point, and fourth was the key place – Rosberg could afford to lose second to Vettel and still win the title. Hamilton was in the meantime starting to get messages from the team radio, asking him to hurry up – the team was concerned about the race win, whilst Hamilton ignited a point of discussion by defying instructions from the team, continuing to back Rosberg up.
So who would hold their nerve as the laps ticked away, and the chequered flag loomed? The answer:
Hamilton would take his 53rd career win, but Nico Rosberg would take his first world championship, holding on to claim second place. His emotions were clear even before he’d gotten the car back to the pits – clutching at his helmet, as though in disbelief. Having spent the past couple of years as runner up, and facing a teammate in Hamilton who is still, pound for pound, the better racing driver, Rosberg might have been forgiven for thinking he would never win the title, but he has dug deep this season, displaying a resolve and consistency that he hasn’t always shown.
In becoming a world champion, Rosberg has emulated his father Keke, who won the title in 1982. He has defied his detractors and critics, and whilst there will be those who would point to Hamilton’s mechanical issues, the fact remains that Rosberg still had a job to do, and he did it. The fact remains that Hamilton could have won the title if he’d not made bad starts in Australia, Italy and Japan, or if he hadn’t have crashed in qualifying in Baku, and if he’d had a better race in Singapore. All any driver can do is control the factors they can influence, and Rosberg did that better than Hamilton this season.
In time, I’ll prepare a more thorough review of the 2016 season, but for now, I wish to say congratulations to Nico Rosberg, and to Mercedes. Enjoy the moment!