For Nico Rosberg, it all started in Austin last year when his lifelong nemesis and team-mate Lewis Hamilton playfully threw a cap in his direction. It was the runners-up cap for the United States Grand Prix, to be worn on the podium in front of a sea of Texans celebrating the Englishman’s flamboyant street-fighting triumph.
The two men were in the pre-podium cooling down room, but there was no warmth in the air, only an icy competitiveness that hovered between them – even if Hamilton, having achieved his life’s dream by claiming a third drivers’ world title, was in an upbeat and feisty mood.
Rosberg flung the cap back. It was the end of it. No more.
“It wasn’t just that, it was not the cap, but it was everything that went with it,” said Rosberg last weekend in Abu Dhabi when, on Sunday, he delivered on his own childhood ambition by emulating his father Keke’s achievement in winning the Formula One drivers’ world title.
It did not matter that he finished second at the insipid Yas Marina circuit in a race controlled by Hamilton, who took his fourth consecutive victory and 10th of the year in memorable, if not spectacular, style – slowing down to bunch the field, disobeying team instructions and attempting to push Rosberg backwards into the hungry clutches of Sebastian Vettel, closing behind him in his Ferrari.
It was really the end. And maybe, for Rosberg, a new beginning. But it had started in Texas, at the 2015 United States Grand Prix.
A few days later, after flying out of Austin, Rosberg began winning. And Hamilton, to universal amusement, then surprise and finally some amazement, began losing.
Rosberg won in Mexico, in Brazil and in Abu Dhabi – and then he arrived in Melbourne, for this year’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix, on a roll.
He was confident and hunting the initiative, wanting to prove he had the toughness and the strength to endure another year of fierce competition and, for the first time, to come out on top.
To his speed, he had added a different kind of fighting spirit, a streak of ruthlessness that was learned from Hamilton’s unyielding focus on winning.
Adding that new sense of belligerence, when required, to his already formidable skills set – he understood the science of his car as well as any engineer and loved deep study of set-ups and performance, burning many a midnight hour to improve it – Rosberg added four straight season-opening wins to his three at the back end of 2015.
If Hamilton had taken his eye off the road and been partying after Austin, he had no such excuses in Melbourne, Bahrain, Shanghai and Sochi. Rosberg won them all, with a little luck, too.
In China, where events have previously conspired against Hamilton in years gone by, he was handed a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change. If that was not enough, he was promptly shunted to the back of the grid when he suffered an engine failure – rarity for Mercedes and not to be the last of Hamilton’s roller-coaster season.
After winning again on the streets of Sochi’s Olympic Park circuit by the Black Sea, Rosberg led by 43 points. Hamilton had not won a race for six months and appeared bereft of form and motivation.
He had bad starts, too, and opening lap collisions, while Rosberg, concentrated, organized, prepared, neat and tidy, kept taking the lead and winning.
In Melbourne, after taking pole, Hamilton dropped back to sixth before fighting back to rescue second. In Bahrain, Hamilton crashed on the opening lap, fell to seventh, but recovered to finish third. And so it went on…
Rosberg had an opportunity to win his eighth race in a row at the Spanish Grand Prix, so drawing close to Sebastian Vettel’s run of nine in 2013.
It was the first race back in Europe, the sun shone and Hamilton was starting to feel desperate. Hamilton took pole and then made what had become his almost routine bad start.
Exiting the third corner, but with his engine not set correctly, Rosberg slowed. Hamilton had a chance to pass. Rosberg blocked him and the champion’s car ran off across the grass, spun and then came back to collide with his.
Both men were out. It was a classic moment in modern Formula One, harking back to the images of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost a generation earlier. The shunt suited Rosberg better than it suited Hamilton for the championship, but it served also to reignite some of the fury and passion that makes the Briton such a competitor.
In the absence of the two Mercedes, it was Red Bull’s day in a scrap with Ferrari and, after a strategic decision that clearly favoured the debutant Dutch teenager Max Verstappen, Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo was left fuming and disgruntled. Put on a three-stop race, he came home fourth after a battle with Vettel and a puncture.
In Monaco, in the rain, Hamilton’s peerless talent shone through the spray. Rosberg struggled. He finished seventh. For Hamilton, it was anything but easy, however, as a fired-up Ricciardo, who had given Red Bull the benefit of his feelings after Spain, chased him all the way to the flag in a faster car.
Hamilton’s master-class in defensive driving was a reminder of his supreme talent and sent him into a spree of success, taking six wins in seven races – Rosberg winning only at the newly re-installed European Grand Prix at Baku, where Hamilton endured a weekend of errors, to break the sequence.
Hamilton won in Canada and Austria, where the pair of them collided again but both finished, before an emotional triumph in his home race at Silverstone, started in wet conditions behind a Safety Car. Rosberg battled through to finish second before being demoted to third for an illegal radio transmission. His lead, once so comfortable, was down to one point.
Hamilton went on to win again in Hungary and then in Rosberg’s home event in Germany before the interruption of the European summer break. Hamilton relaxed. He led by 19 points. His recovery looked unstoppable. Rosberg flicked himself back into a default re-start. No beach for him. He worked to be ready.
At the next race, in Belgium, Hamilton’s overall sequence of engine failures and other problems had to be faced and dealt with. He had suffered in China, similarly in Russia, where he started 10th, in Baku, where he started 10th and finished fifth.
In Spa-Francorchamps, therefore, the team decided to introduce a raft of new power units and other parts for Hamilton’s car – enough to last him to the end of the season. The exchange for this, however, was that he started at the back of the grid, alongside Fernando Alonso’s McLaren-Honda. It was arguably the most talented back row in F1® history.
Rosberg, untroubled by the gremlins that had punctuated Hamilton’s topsy-turvy season, took pole and won. Hamilton, almost unbeliebavly, finished third. His win cut the Briton’s lead to nine points.
Next stop, Italy, one of Hamilton’s favourite tracks. There, boosted by his set of new engines, he shone, took pole and looked set to show his supremacy, but another bad start gifted victory to Rosberg who regained the championship lead.
It was the end of the ‘European season’ and also the end of Hamilton’s run of successes. Rosberg was re-energised.
In Singapore, where Hamilton was subdued, Rosberg reigned supreme. He delivered a complete weekend of flawless driving, took pole position and won. It was clear a true battle royal was on between the two.
By now, too, Red bull were finding their form. Ricciardo had reacted to the upstart speed of the teenager Verstappen, who had turned 19, and was determined to secure a victory – somewhere, anywhere, before the season ended.
In Malaysia, at the sweltering Sepang circuit, Hamilton bounced back to his best. He drove brilliantly, dominated and led the race when, with the finish almost in sight, his engine blew up. As the flames roared, Hamilton could only say “Oh no, no, no…”
Afterwards, in an interview, he told the BBC: “My question is to Mercedes. We have so many engines made, but mine are the only ones to fail. Somebody needs to give me some answers because this is not acceptable…”
The defending champion’s disappointment was Ricciardo’s opportunity and he came victorious in a Red Bull one-two, delivering at last on his promise…. It was confirmation, too, that Red Bull had re-emerged as the second team, the major threat to Mercedes for the rest of 2016 and next year.
In Japan, Hamilton seemed distracted by his social media activity and his loss of focus. Rosberg won again, leading from start to finish. He led the championship by 33 points. It looked like ‘game over’…
But there is no accounting for Hamilton when he has his back against the wall. He stormed back with perhaps the best four successive performances of his career – pole and victory, in untouchable fashion, in Austin, Mexico, Brazil – where his drive was flawless in torrential rain in a race of endless dramas that also saw Verstappen prove his talent beyond argument by finishing third – and then Abu Dhabi.
Rosberg, the calculated, calculating and consistent driver that he is, finished second every time. He did what he had to – including a bold passing move on Verstappen in the final race. To Hamilton, the headlines, the controversy and the victories, but to Rosberg went the ultimate goal of taking the championship.
It was a tense ending to a tense record season of 21 races complete with collisions and surprises. Mercedes secured a third successive constructors’ title, Red Bull revived, but Ferrari failed to measure up to their own high expectations.
There were farewells to the 2009 champion Briton Jenson Button and Brazilian Felipe Massa, who had almost taken the title in 2008. Both men had ‘guards of honour’ from their peers and teams.
And there were impressive rookie appearances from Frenchman Esteban Ocon with Manor and his team-mate German Pascal Wehrlein. Russian Daniil Kvyat started the season alongside Ricciardo at Red Bull and ended it back at Toro Rosso, his part-exchange with Verstappen allowing the Dutchman to light up an orange glow across the F1® sky.
For Rosberg, it was in the end a family affair. His father Keke had won the title in 1982 and as the party began in Abu Dhabi, he flew in to share the moment.
There were no hard feelings about Hamilton’s street-fighting tactics. Only a final appreciation that he had beaten the best to take his crown…