PARIS (AP) Lewis Hamilton’s bid to regain his Formula One title might actually prove harder without Nico Rosberg around.
Rosberg retired days after becoming the 2016 world champion and finally getting the better of Hamilton, ending their acrimonious rivalry at Mercedes just as he got the upper hand.
With Rosberg gone, a key factor this season – starting Sunday with the Australian Grand Prix – will be how three-time champion Hamilton gets on with his new teammate.
Valtteri Bottas was plucked from Williams after Rosberg’s shock announcement. The calm Finnish driver is seen as the perfect foil for the tempestuous Hamilton, an outspoken driver not afraid to stand up to management.
A perfect match in theory, perhaps not in reality.
Hamilton and Rosberg had a tense relationship and openly feuded at times, forcing Mercedes management to intervene. Crucially, however, the quick and consistent Rosberg also brought the best out of Hamilton – forcing him to up his pace in qualifying and on race day.
Even though he lost the title, at times last year Hamilton’s driving was the best of his career. Some credit for that must also go to Rosberg’s relentless competitiveness.
Rosberg quit F1 with 23 wins, but the 27-year-old Bottas has never won a race at this level. He has only nine career podiums and never finished higher than fourth in the championship. If he does not challenge Hamilton in the same way that Rosberg did, then Hamilton’s level might drop.
If so, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, a four-time F1 champion, and Red Bull pair Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo will be poised to take advantage.
MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 09: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF70H in the Pitlane during day three of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 9, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Vettel is desperate to bring the drivers’ title back to Ferrari for the first time since Kimi Raikkonen, his current teammate, won it in 2007.
The 19-year-old Verstappen made history last year as the youngest driver to win a race – and the youngest to qualify on the front row. He has huge talent and is a fearless driver. Ricciarado also won a race last year and the 27-year-old Australian showed great speed.
Ferrari demonstrated in pre-season testing that it may finally have turned the corner after a hugely frustrating campaign where it slipped behind Red Bull, much to the exasperation of Vettel. Ferrari showed more pace than Mercedes in pre-season testing, although those gains should not be taken as outright proof since teams can hold something back. The real indicator will come on Saturday, during qualifying for the Australian GP.
“It is always hard to say who now has the better car, but it is very obvious that Ferrari is stronger than last year,” Verstappen said. “Mercedes is always up there as well. I think that they are not showing their true potential.”
Fans gambling over the last three years didn’t need to look too far down their betting slips – it was almost always a case of which Mercedes driver would win.
But new rule changes may help bridge the gap this time.