Nico Rosberg goes into this weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix seeking to confirm he has regained the momentum as leader of the drivers’ world championship by completing a hat-trick of triumphs on one of his favourite tracks.
The German winner of Melbourne’s Australian Grand Prix, who celebrated his 31st birthday on Monday, increased his lead in the title race to 24 points, ahead of Mercedes team-mate defending three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, by winning the European Grand Prix in Baku two weeks ago.
In that inaugural race in the Azerbaijan capital, Rosberg made the most of another series of setbacks for the Englishman, including engine setting problems during the race, by claiming his fifth win of the season on a street circuit that had, at first, appeared to be a perfect setting for the champion’s talents to shine.
After two wins, in Monaco and Montreal, Hamilton seemed to have regained the initiative, but his surge back to the front ended in a somewhat calamitous fashion as he uncharacteristically brushed the barriers in an error-strewn qualifying and then lost power in the race.
This weekend will be something completely different and gives Australian Daniel Ricciardo an extra incentive as he seeks success on his team’s ‘home’ track, the Red Bull Ring, a venue that has little in common with the once majestic sweeps of the old Osterreichring.
The sharp, tight and relatively-short Red Bull Ring returned to the calendar in 2014 and, since then, Rosberg has enjoyed a 100 per cent record with two wins for Mercedes.
He will, doubtless, hope for another successful weekend in the Styrian Alps to push him further clear of Hamilton as Ferrari and Red Bull close in on the Mercedes men.
Hamilton, however, knows that he has to respond and will hope for plenty of the typically capricious, unsettled and wet weather of the Styrian mountains to assist him in cutting Rosberg’s lead to a more manageable size.
Mindful of the increasing challenge of Red Bull, on the team’s home patch, and an improved Ferrari, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff has made clear his outfit must push hard to stay on top.
“We didn’t maximise our potential in Baku,” said Wolff. “We left there a little disappointed. I think our package is as competitive as ever and we have seen that both drivers are pushing right to the limit – sometimes even beyond it – and that is what we want to see.
“It is too easy to get complacent or ease off the pedal, but they are pushing themselves, each other and the team forward with every step and our priority is to eliminate the errors that have cost us points.”
Having ended the speculation over his immediate future and recovered his composure – and his famous smile, Ricciardo arrived in Austria talking about keeping alive his ambition of winning races this year.
“I think the championship is... I'll never say it's over, because we're not even halfway through the season, but I think we can at least win a race before the season's out,” said the Aussie racer.
"But can we win six or eight, to put us in a championship fight? Probably not. It's definitely a long shot.
"Obviously the objective is to get on that top step at some point, that'll make me happy enough for '16 and then for '17 hopefully we get a proper fight."
Ricciardo won three times for Red Bull in 2014 and, after a disappointing 2015, has looked strong again this season. He was unlucky not to win in Spain, where a team strategy decision instead handed victory to Dutch teenager Max Verstappen, and again in Monaco, where a pit-stop cock-up wrecked his race.
"I think this year has been a little bit up-and-down, but generally, I know the car is better than last year, and obviously we're finding more with the engine… So we are going in the right direction.”
Given his speed in Monte Carlo, he can be a challenger again on the sharp and tight Red Bull Ring where under-pressure Kimi Raikkonen will be racing to keep his Ferrari seat.
Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne this week told the Finn that he has to deliver better results to prove that he ‘deserves’ another contract in 2017.
“It’s up to him,” said Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne. “Kimi’s time with Ferrari will depend on his performance. He has to show he deserves to stay otherwise I think he won’t want to continue...”
If Raikkonen’s seat becomes vacant it is likely to stimulate a summer ‘silly season’ of proposed drivers moves for 2017 – but, before that, Rosberg wants to build a lead that not even Hamilton can claw back…