There’s no doubt about it – Nico Rosberg is on a roll. After taking his ninth win of the season and fourth in five races at the last round in Japan, the championship leader is enjoying his greatest run of form to date as he closes on his maiden F1 World Drivers’ Championship.
With such momentum behind him, Rosberg could easily be considered the favourite for victory in the United States Grand Prix this weekend, with the anxiety of challenging at a Hamilton heartland considerably assuaged by his recent dominant performances in Singapore and Suzuka.
But in reality, Rosberg doesn’t need to win in Austin to win the championship – in fact, he doesn’t need to take a single victory for the rest of the season. With his Japanese Grand Prix win giving him a thirty-three point lead over Lewis Hamilton, Rosberg could finish second to his teammate for each of the remaining four rounds and still claim the title by five points. As much as Rosberg insists he is still looking at each race in isolation, it would be naïve to think that he hasn’t at least passingly considered laying back and letting the inherent pace of his W07 Hybrid carry him this final mile.
But on the other hand, the significance of laying down another emphatic win at one of his teammate’s favoured circuits will surely figure strongly in Rosberg’s mind this weekend – as will, no doubt, the prospect of settling a few scores with Hamilton regarding last year’s controversial first corner contact.
With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how Hamilton approaches this final leg of the 2016 season. It’s simply not in the defending champion’s mindset to back down and concede this hasn’t been his year – but at the same time, he will be all too aware that doing his best might not be enough to prevail this time.
Hamilton’s best hopes arguably lie with Rosberg suffering a Malaysia-style DNF, or at the least some qualifying trouble to drop him down the order for Sunday. But those odds are far too long to bet a world championship on, and if Hamilton is still aiming to come out the victor in November he will have to race strategically from here on out.
He will know from past experience that he has the edge over Rosberg in wheel-to-wheel combat; and will also know that if he asserts himself from the start – as in last year’s Japanese Grand Prix, for example – he has a good chance of seeing the German get swallowed up by the chasing pack.
Such tactics are not without their risk, of course – one overly aggressive defence could easily see the Briton losing out instead, and potentially incurring the ire of both the stewards and the Mercedes team. But at this late stage of the championship and with the odds stacked so resolutely against him, what has Hamilton got to lose?