► Could this be Nico's last chance to win the title?
► Exclusive interview part of CAR's 2016 preview
► ‘I’m a fighter. I want the world championship’
Speed is a pre-requisite in Formula One, but speed alone doesn’t win world titles. A driver also needs to be consistent if he’s to claim the sport’s biggest prize; that’s what separates the great from the good.
‘That was the amazing thing about Michael Schumacher,’ says Damon Hill. ‘He was always there; he was fast in qualifying, he was fast in the race and he could repeat it race after race. That’s why he was so successful.’
Three drivers on the current grid have the right blend of yin and yang. Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are renowned for their speed and consistency, which is why they command the three largest salaries. A notable absentee from this group is Nico Rosberg, who continues his search for the magic recipe. On his day Nico can beat anyone, but he’s yet to construct a season-long campaign.
For this reason, all eyes are on Rosberg ahead of the new season. We know he’s fast, as proven by his 22 career pole positions, but can he step up in 2016? He claimed six consecutive pole positions at the end of last year, but the destiny of the world title was already decided; he took only one pole in the opening 13 races.
‘Qualifying went against me last year,’ says Nico, ‘and it’s clear that I need to improve that. I’ve had a longer-than-usual break over the winter, during which time I’ve examined everything that might make me a better driver. My conclusion has been efficiency; that’s what I’ve been focusing on.’
Efficiency, if found, will help Rosberg’s consistency over the gruelling 21-race schedule. But he has the added complicationof a new contract to negotiate and if his discussions are as drawn-out as Hamilton’s at the start of last year, they are likely to prove energy-sapping and anti-efficient. A distraction at best.
Rosberg has been a Mercedes driver ever since the Silver Arrows returned to F1 in 2010, but seven years of loyalty are no guarantee that he’ll be re-signed. Team boss Toto Wolff has already fired a warning shot across his bow. ‘We struggle sometimes when we win races,’ says Toto. ‘We always have one driver who’s upset and this spills over into the team; it’s something that needs to stop. If it doesn’t stop, we will not maintain the long-term set-up with the drivers.’
Rosberg won’t need reminding that highly-rated Mercedes protégé Pascal Wehrlein is making his F1 debut with Manor this year. He also won’t need reminding that Wehrlein is only 21, and one of Mercedes’ main reasons for being in F1 is to lower the average age of its customers. If Wehrlein turns out to be as good as we’re led to believe, his impact on F1 could be as immediate as Max Verstappen’s was last year.
Rosberg is the only Mercedes driver out-of-contract, so the onus is on him to keep the peace with team-mate Hamilton. That might be easier said than done, if he turns out to be the slower of the two like last year because, invariably, it was Nico’s frustrations that bubbled over in 2015. There were several flashpoints: at the Chinese Grand Prix he accused Lewis of deliberately scuppering his race; in the US and Japan he accused Hamilton of driving him off the road, and then there was ‘cap-gate’ after Lewis had clinched the world title in Austin. He threw his hat at Hamilton, while waiting to walk onto the podium.
‘My relationship with Lewis hasn’t changed, or soured,’ says Rosberg. ‘It’s always had its ups and downs, and it always will do. We know each other well and we’ll never be the best of friends, but we don’t need to be friends to get the job done. I hope Toto will come to the conclusion – as he has done for the last three years – that, yes, there are difficult moments, but we’re doing a great job for the team.’ Nico breaks into a big grin and opens his hands. ‘The team has just had the most successful season in the history of F1,’ he laughs, ‘beating our previously most successful season the previous year.’
Against the background of politics and pressure you’d forgive Nico for cracking, but he shows no sign of nerves when we meet at the Mercedes factory. His manner is thoughtful, yet direct, and he doesn’t shy away from the big issue.
‘I know what I have to do this year,’ he says. ‘Lewis has beaten me to the title for the last two years, so the odds are in his favour again, but I’ve shown many times that I can beat him. I just need to do it more regularly. Last year ended well for me, which was important. Austin was a very tough moment – definitely the lowest point of the year – and I needed to bounce back from a deep hole like that. It was good for my confidence to beat Lewis in consecutive races and I need to maintain that form this year.’
The season-opener in Melbourne is a hard place to kick off such a crucial season against Hamilton because the reigning champion is mighty around the streets of Albert Park. He’s started from pole there in three of the last four years and he was 0.5sec up on Rosberg last year.
The threat from Ferrari is an added complication. The Italians have been very bullish about their title chances this year and, like Hamilton, they have a good record in Melbourne. Rosberg isn’t underestimating the red challenge, even if it’s been difficult to draw too many conclusions from pre-season testing.
‘I’m confident that we’ll have a great car this year,’ he says. ‘Mercedes is an amazing team and we’ve had technical continuity, which helps. But we won’t know how good our car is relative to the opposition until after Melbourne because you can’t read much into testing. It’s too close to call. We know Ferrari are going to be a serious threat and we know that we’ll have to be at the top of our game to beat them. But I welcome the challenge. It’ll be good for F1 to have two teams – two legendary names – fighting for the world championship and it will help my own chances if I’m competing against more than just Lewis. A DNF, for example, might not be such a penalty if there are several drivers in the mix.’
Nico cannot rely on external influences in his quest for the world title; he needs to dominate his rivals and that means winning from pole position. Nine of his 14 victories have been won from pole, proving that he’s better at disappearing into the distance than he is battling through the field. If Hamilton holds the qualifying advantage, as he did last year, Rosberg won’t get a look in.
It won’t be lost on F1 historians that Nico’s father Keke won only one race en route to the world title back in 1982. His flawless campaign proved too much for the fast-but-fallible offerings from Ferrari and Renault, and Rosberg Jnr must repeat his father’s moyens de guerre. He needs to grind down his opponents with metronomic consistency.
‘I don’t think we can discount Nico this year,’ says three-time champion Jackie Stewart. ‘He’s bright enough to know where he needs to improve. He’s got the speed; we know that from the number of pole positions he has taken. He’s also a smoother driver than Hamilton, which could play to his advantage in certain races.’
Something that Rosberg refers to during our interview is ‘sisu’. There’s no direct translation into English, but he says it’s an old Finnish word meaning gutsy. It will have come from Keke because Nico can’t speak Finnish, but he knows enough about its meaning to warn his rivals to expect it from him this year.
‘I’m a fighter and the world championship is the dream I’m fighting for,’ he says. ‘Since I was small, it’s been the only box I’ve wanted to tick. I’m proud of the wins, but I want the world championship.’
Nico on his rivals
Ferrari: ‘My moles inside the team tell me they’re going to be a big threat. They were much closer last year than the year before and we expect them to be closer again now. Having more than one rival will help me.’
Lewis Hamilton: ‘He’s not threatening me, I’m the one threatening him because he’s the world champion. He’s got it to lose, not me. The odds are in his favour, but I’ve shown many times that I can beat him.’
Sebastian Vettel: ‘It seems he’s the guy who’s going to be bothering us most. He has a great record and I’ve had a few on-track battles with him, like Bahrain last year. There’s a mutual respect between us.’
Kimi Räikkönen: ‘I don’t know what to expect from Kimi. Maybe he can be on Sebastian’s level, or maybe he’ll be a step behind. I don’t know about him; that’s my feeling.’
Surprise package of the year: ‘I don’t care about that. I’m not underestimating the opposition; it’s purely that I’m expecting our biggest battle to be with Ferrari this year, so that’s what I’m focused on.’
Engines: 25% louder than last season
Mercedes, Ferrari, Honda and Renault – in that order. That’s what most people believe the pecking order to be among the engine manufacturers, with Ferrari and Honda the biggest movers. The Scuderia’s 2016 power unit is virtually on a par with that of Mercedes, while Honda have made massive horsepower gains by increasing the size of their compressor.
These developments will bring the field closer together from the outset. Even the likes of Renault, who might struggle initially, have the ability to improve significantly thanks to newfound leniency in the regulations.
‘We didn’t want a scenario where any of us [manufacturers] could say “I can’t catch up because of the rules”,’ says Mercedes engine boss Andy Cowell. ‘This year there is going to be the opportunity to develop any area, as long as you remain inside the 32 token restrictions.’
The token system will disappear completely in 2017, giving the engine manufacturers carte blanche to plot the downfall of pace-setters Mercedes. There’s good news on the noise front as well. Every car will have two exhausts this year, one of which will be exclusively for wastegate gases, and the effect on decibels has been dramatic.
‘With the wastegate open,’ says Williams tech boss Pat Symonds, ‘they sound 20-25% louder than last year, so it’s quite a noticeable change.’ People watching might even need ear plugs.
Recent Form: Last six races
Nico Rosberg: 2nd (JPN), Ret (RUS), 2nd (USA), 1st (MEX), 1st (BRA), 1st (ABU).
Lewis Hamilton: 1st (JPN), 1st (RUS), 1st (USA), 2nd (MEX), 2nd(BRA), 2nd (ABU).
Nico Rosberg: pole (JPN), pole (RUS), pole (USA), pole (MEX), pole (BRA), pole (ABU)
Lewis Hamilton: 2nd (JPN), 2nd (RUS), 2nd (USA), 2nd (MEX), 2nd (BRA), 2nd (ABU)
The form tells its own story – Nico is closing on Lewis, and closing fast. You can put last season’s late change of fortune down to Lewis relaxing or the pressure being off Nico, but both factors could still apply in 2016. Who wants it more?
New kids on the track
Jolyon Palmer, Renault F1
Another ‘son of’ to make it to F1, but Jolyon is better than his father Jonathan, a veteran of 83 GPs. JP Jnr raced in T-Cars and Formula Palmer Audi, before winning the GP2 title in 2014 – the first Brit to do so since Lewis Hamilton in 2006. Last year he was Lotus’s third driver. Joining Renault in its comeback season as a constructor in F1, he’ll need to make a quick impact alongside highly-rated team-mate Kevin Magnussen.
‘I fully realise I’ve got to make the most of it this year,’ says JP. ‘Treat every year as if it could be your last. I can’t leave anything on the table; I’ve got to hit the ground running in Melbourne.’
Pascal Wehrlein, Manor Racing
Impressed hugely in an F1 test for Mercedes two years ago, since when he’s been the team’s third driver. He became the youngest ever winner of DTM in 2015, also with Mercedes, and this year he makes his F1 debut with Manor, with Mercedes power.
Wehrlein’s links with the three-pointed star shouldn’t be underestimated; it’s a question of when he races for them in F1 and not if. He’s an interesting character too, being half-German and half Mauritian.
‘He’s a huge talent,’ says Merc boss Toto Wolff. ‘I think he will surprise a few people this year.’
Rio Haryanto, Manor Racing
Drove for Manor in GP3, but his return to the team in F1 has more to do with cash than capability. That said, he’s not too bad for a pay driver: he finished fourth in GP2 last year. But there were more deserving drivers, such as American Alexander Rossi. If Rio’s a chip off the old block, he’ll have a sense of humour. His folks named their sons Rio, Roy, Ryan and Ricky.
Haas F1 team
‘The money won’t worry Gene; he’s richer than God.’ That was the opinion of people in NASCAR when asked if Gene Haas was intimidated by the cost of F1. But an abundance of money is just one of the reasons to be excited by Haas’s arrival.
Firstly, the team has a technical partnership with Ferrari. From day one, it’ll use the Scuderia’s latest power unit and gearbox, and Ferrari will also manufacture many of the mechanical parts. To put that into perspective, Toro Rosso are being made to use a year-old Ferrari engine.
Then there’s Romain Grosjean, a driver from the top drawer. After a shaky start to his F1 career he’s matured into a brilliantly fast driver. He’s had 10 podiums, and there will be more, if he gets the right car.
Esteban Gutierrez didn’t set the world alight during his two seasons at Sauber, but he will have learnt a lot while Ferrari’s third driver last year.
Ferrari: the comeback?
If Ferrari doesn’t challenge for the world title this year, there’ll be trouble in Maranello. Twice over the winter – at the team’s Christmas party and again at the first fire-up of the new engine – company president Sergio Marchionne stated his aim of winning the 2016 world title, and were it not to happen you’d worry about the future of the team’s management.
But the omens are good. Last year’s SF15-T won three races, providing a good base from which to build, and the team has the support of the sport’s main man. ‘The best part of last year can be summed up in one word,’ says Bernie Ecclestone. ‘Ferrari. Their return to victory was important for me and for all of F1.’
The team says it has found significant performance gains over the winter; if that turns out to be the case, the only question mark surrounds the step that Mercedes has made. With the pace-setting Silver Arrows operating closer to the potential of the regulations, Ferrari could hope that their step will be smaller, but early signs from the first pre-season test in Barcelona gave mixed clues. On the one hand Sebastian Vettel posted the fastest lap of the whole test, but data suggests the gap to Mercedes remains similar to last year, at about half a second.
But Sebastian Vettel is a class act – ‘one of the top four drivers in history,’ says Ecclestone. The four-time champion has only been a Ferrari driver for a year, but he’s already got his feet firmly under the table. His race-winning performances last year proved that he’s back at his best too.
As for Kimi Räikkönen, a lot will depend on motivation. This is most likely going to be the Finn’s final season in F1 and he might need the carrot of driving a world-beater to eke out the best in him. But he proved on occasion last year that he still has what it takes.
Another significant development is the arrival of Jock Clear as head of engineering. He comes from Mercedes and will give the Scuderia important insight into the machinations and dominance of the reigning champions. The final cog in the wheel?
F1 2016 calendar
March 20: Australia
April 3: Bahrain
April 17: China
May 1: Sochi
May 15: Spain
May 29: Monaco
June 12: Canada
June 19: Azerbaijan
July 3: Austria
July 10: Great Britain
July 24: Hungary
July 31: Germany
August 28: Belgium
September 4: Italy
September 18: Singapore
October 2: Malaysia
October 9: Japan
October 23: USA
October 30: Mexico
November 13: Brazil
November 27: Abu Dhabi
The 2016 calendar has been bolstered by the reappearance of the German Grand Prix (sanity prevails) and the inclusion of Azerbaijan (sanity doesn’t prevail). The streets of Baku are an odd location for a race, given that it’s only 550 miles from the Russian GP in Sochi – it’s almost as if cash took precedent. But a 1.4-mile straight will make it the world’s fastest street track.