They say fortune favours the brave, but Formula 1 is such a procession these days that playing it safe has become the winning tactic. Lewis Hamilton’s heartbreakingly unlucky engine blow up 11 laps from the end in Malaysia seven weeks ago ensured that there would be no dramatic head to head finale to the season for the Drivers’ title. All Nico Rosberg has had to do for the last four races is to stay out of trouble and come second. It seems rather fitting that the anodyne Rosberg should take the title by avoiding confrontation.
That is not to suggest that Rosberg doesn’t deserve the title for his consistency, and towards the end, a new-found grittiness and determination to make the most of his ascendant position. Nevertheless, the season will be remembered more for Hamilton’s ups and downs; the mechanical failures, the troublesome starts, the grid penalties, the inexplicable lapses, the exciting comebacks and a disastrous engine fire, that made many people, including Hamilton, wonder whether there was a conspiracy at Mercedes to deliberately undermine him.
Cry conspiracy and images of grassy knolls and faked moon landings come to mind. But Mercedes didn’t have to sabotage Lewis’s car to undermine him. They only had to make him their ‘unofficial’ no. 2 driver, which is what appears have happened this season. They swapped his mechanics, who had helped him to win two back-to-back titles, with Rosberg’s at the start of the season; they refused to give him undercutting, race winning tyre strategies; they gave him wrong engine settings, and they denied him technical assistance citing the radio ban yet blithely broke the rules for Rosberg.
If ever confirmation were required that Mercedes wanted Nico Rosberg to win the Drivers’ title, it came in the final laps of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday. Rosberg only had to finish third to win the title; Hamilton needed to win and ensure Rosberg finished fourth or lower, to retain it. Contriving a 1-4 finish was always going to be a nigh on impossible task at a sterile, soulless, difficult-to-overtake modern racetrack like Yas Marina. Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner had mischievously suggested that grid leader Hamilton should drive purposely slow in order to back up Rosberg against his rivals. It would have helped Hamilton’s cause if one of those rival drivers, Red Bull’s young hot head Max Verstappen – a boy who will not be told what to do by Mercedes head Toto Wolff, thank you very much – hadn’t spun himself into last place off the grid. You can’t say lady luck has not been perched on Rosberg’s car all season.
Hamilton was caught in a difficult damned if he did, damned if he didn’t situation. He had to win the race so couldn’t risk playing cat and mouse until his position at the front was secure. Had Hamilton backed up Rosberg too soon, Mercedes could have tried to force an undercut on him, scuppering his title hopes entirely. He could also have been overtaken by Vettel on fresher tyres, and again the title would have evaporated. Hamilton had to leave it as late as possible to employ a strategy that he knew was unlikely to come off. It would have relied on other drivers having the will, along with the car speed, to challenge Rosberg. But, being the champion that he is, at least Hamilton had a go.
Mercedes had declared publicly that they would allow their drivers to race, and since both the Constructors’ title and Drivers’ title had already been secured by them, there was no reason for Mercedes to act otherwise. Unless, of course, they had another agenda and were, in fact, backing Rosberg for the Drivers’ title. Their dissembling became clear when Hamilton’s tactics began to take hold and the cars started to bunch up. On crackled Hamilton’s radio with Mercedes race engineers pleading with their leading driver to speed up so Mercedes could get ‘the win’. Lewis pointed out drily that he was ‘comfortably’ in the lead.
More unimpressive was champion-elect Rosberg’s reaction to his teammate’s wily tactics. Rather than attempt to pass Hamilton if he felt the pace was too slow or simply grind it out, he went begging to the team to intervene. Back came more of the same instructions to Hamilton. They were dismissed disdainfully with the pert retort: ‘I suggest you just let us race.’ Clearly Mercedes needed someone with more authority to negotiate with the defiant Hamilton. On came Paddy Lowe, the technical director, with the same demand to speed up and win the race. Hamilton’s reply: “Right now, I am losing the world championship, whether I win or lose this race.” Obviously his team didn’t think he was losing it well enough.
In the end, neither of the other team’s drivers, Vettel or Verstappen behind him, appeared inclined to intervene so not only were Hamilton’s efforts in vain, but it made a mockery of Mercedes’ concerns about Vettel winning the race. Vettel couldn’t have appeared less interested in helping Hamilton to win as many world titles as him! But Hamilton’s competitive desire to hang on to his world title had revealed to the watching world, once and for all, what everyone had suspected all season: that Mercedes were not impartial. They clearly favoured Rosberg and wanted Hamilton to play ball so their man could take the world title.
Hamilton’s resistance, rather than being seen as a legitimate attempt to fight for his world title, was condemned by Toto Wolff – he who likes to make phone calls to other drivers’ dads ordering their son to stay away from his drivers (we wonder which one?) – as ‘anarchy’. Wolff has threatened to sanction Hamilton for disobeying team orders. Considering he had publicly stated that he would allow the drivers to race, he has clearly been exposed as a liar. Or perhaps what he actually meant was that he was happy for them to race so long as Lewis won the Grand Prix by a distance and allowed Nico to come home safely in second place and take the world title without having to ruffle his neatly coiffured blond hair.
The internecine battle at Mercedes does highlight one of the biggest problems in F1: the inherent conflict in having both a constructor’s title and a driver’s title – having two drivers in the same team with a unifying goal to win the constructors’ title, but paradoxically, being each other’s biggest rival for the individual drivers’ title at the same time. Is F1 about the team or is it about the individual? It can’t be both without creating these kinds of polarising clashes.
But perhaps that’s what Bernie Ecclestone and his cronies in F1 want. Controversy. Controversy generates publicity. As the old adage goes: ‘all publicity is good publicity.’ At a time when the racing as a spectacle has never been duller, with a single team dominance and barely any overtaking on insipid, sanitised tracks, a cynic (otherwise known as Bernie E) might argue that the sport could do with all the publicity it can get. And if that means Mercedes getting into unedifying spats with their own drivers over surreptitious team orders, then so be it. After all, the fall out from the race is proving to be far more interesting than the racing, or the lack of it, on the track.
With no other team capable of challenging Mercedes’ dominance this season, the outcome of almost every race has been predictable. The only thing about this season that has been unpredictable is Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton is pure box-office. No one attracts as much drama as he does. It is his travails, his misfortunes and his altercations with his own team and teammate that have made this season in any way memorable. So in a strange way, the 2016 season has got the champion it deserves. Not the colourful, adventurous, inconsistent, occasionally self-destructive, mostly spectacular, boy racer Hamilton, but a bland, orderly, calculated, cerebral, conscientious, consistent driver, who, with a lot of help from his Mercedes team, has maximised his potential by taking advantage of their dominance. Rosberg epitomises the modern driver and his world title win reflects modern F1. Safe, mechanised, processional, self-preserving and corporate. But very little racing.
Actual racing requires combustible boy racers, monstrous cars and fierce competition from different teams. Without competition sport has no purpose. Without competition from drivers of other teams, the 2016 constructors’ title was a Mercedes procession and the drivers’ title was a Mercedes hegemony compromised by their internal team strategy. If this is the best F1 can offer, why would any fan bother to turn up next year?
The only hope is that with new regulations coming into the sport in 2017, it will make the other teams such as Red Bull with their exciting drivers Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, and Ferrari with world champions Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, more competitive and we can finally get to see some honest racing again.