Mercedes F1 team brains-trust have opened up on the rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, one that only ended when the latter unexpectedly quit after winning a tense and drama-packed 2016 world championship.
Rosberg played second fiddle to Hamilton in the team, until that year when he found something extra to beat him to the title in one of the most dominant cars of this remarkable Mercedes era.
The two boyhood friends became arch-enemies as they battled for the sport’s biggest prize, and the differences between the pair was stark according to the Mercedes chief Strategist James Vowles.
He explained in the latest Beyond the Grid podcast: “If you gave Nico a thousand laps, he slowly moves towards an incredible performance level. If you give Lewis two laps, he’s there, if that makes any sense. Where Nico was excellent is that you give him time in the car to see what his teammate is doing, he’s incredible, what he achieves.”
In 2016, albeit with only the two Mercedes drivers as candidates, the title fight was decided by five points, in Rosberg’s favour. He won nine races, Hamilton ten, but it was enough for the German to claim it on a famous night in Abu Dhabi before, hours later, deciding to quit the sport in a move that no one saw coming.
Vowles recalled: “Toto called us into the office. And we didn’t really know what to expect. But if Toto asked us to list five things that he was going to say, Nico retiring wasn’t on that list. And it was just a bizarre moment.
“Even now it’s kind of hard to work out why he asked to be released from his contract. Because even if he wasn’t going to beat Lewis again, he was in a good car, he’d be winning races, he’d be part of a team that was doing something amazing,” ventured the strategist.
Further insight was shed on the team, which returned as the Silver Arrows in 2010, with Rosberg and Michael Schumacher, coaxed out of retirement to lead the new project headed by Toto Wolff, Ross Brawn and Niki Lauda.
Schumacher’s return, and defection from Ferrari, was a big prize for Mercedes on a marketing front and, most importantly, for what the great German could bring to the team in terms of unrivalled experience and expertise.
But, as a driver, the seven-time Formula 1 World Champion was past his best during his time in Silver, and the results did not come as had he had been accustomed to in his Ferrari heydays. Victories did not come during his three-season comeback spell.
Vowles was around at the time and revealed: “I was heartbroken, truly heartbroken for him that this is a guy that we all wanted to win a race, because he deserved it frankly, and he put so much effort into the team and so much of his life into the team that it was payback for him and that was his opportunity through the year.
“I was heartbroken with the fact that that one race was where he dropped back. I felt for him – I still feel now – he didn’t get all the results that he deserved give the amount he was putting into the team.”
After three years back in the top flight, at the end of well below par 2012 with far too many DNFs and a couple of big shunts, Schumacher called it quits for a final time. However, a final podium did come his way at the European Grand Prix, in Valencia, during his final season.
For 2013, Mercedes had managed to lure Lewis Hamilton as Rosberg’s teammate and a very different prospect walked through the door, which changed the dynamic of the team and the course of history; since then the Briton has added an extra six F1 titles to his CV.
Vowles shed light on how Hamilton evolved with the team: “He’s a very different character from the one that joined us. When he joined us, he was a mercenary, he was here for himself to win races.
“That desire to win hasn’t disappeared but what he’s realized is you do it with the team and as part of the team and you become the greatest sportsman that exists, as a result of it. One individual cannot rely on himself.”
Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin shed light on Hamilton’s transformation: “Early on, he had this relentless desire to win every race, manifest itself in his driving, and he would just push and push and did not stop.
“I think now he’s becoming a much more calculating driver. From the first lap of the first race, he’s thinking about Championships and about looking after the car and the tires a lot more.
“He hasn’t gotten any better at losing races because that’s just in his nature. Certainly, his approach to the weekend and his thinking in the car. And everything is becoming really calculated, clean, and clinical.
“To the point where if someone asks you about Lewis making mistakes, you’re thinking back and going back seasons kind of, to try and recall any examples. His target is perfection and that’s a difficult target to pick. That’s what he’s trying to achieve,” added Shovlin.
Hamilton is targeting an unprecedented eighth Formula 1 world championship title, one more than Schumacher; the Mercedes driver also set to claim 100 wins in the top flight this season, he is already on 96. He is also only two short of an incredible 100 pole position starts.