We were robbed of a close battle at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, when an engine failure ended Hamilton’s race after two troublesome laps, leaving Rosberg to claim a straightforward, dominant victory.
Hamilton enjoyed a similarly convincing victory a fortnight later in Malaysia, proving his critics—who claimed that he was unsuited to the demands of F1’s new era—completely and utterly wrong on a weekend when he was the class of the field by a distance.
It had been something of a cold war between the Mercedes drivers so far in 2014, with Rosberg and Hamilton taking points off one another and claiming minor moral victories along the way. That suited the former—the supposed cunning, silent assassin—fine.
But in Sakhir, the tables turned to play into the hands of the street fighter, Hamilton, to produce a series of battles that were not too dissimilar to the last time a pair of teammates fought for the lead of a race.
Back then, at the Malaysian Grand Prix of 2013, we saw the difference between a world champion and a mere grand prix winner. Sebastian Vettel played the role of the opportunistic aggressor, defying the orders of his Red Bull team to take the lead and win the race as Mark Webber fought in vain to resist the German.
Webber’s defence on that Sepang afternoon was as robust as you would expect but not convincing in the slightest; you always felt that it was a matter of time until Vettel got past and scampered into the distance. And Vettel did eventually get past at Turn 4 of the Kuala Lumpur circuit when Webber, presumably fearful of a race-ending collision, compromised by leaving a gap the size of a bus on the exit. This allowed Vettel to complete a relatively simple, anticlimactic overtaking manoeuvre, ending a scrap that deserved a more thrilling conclusion.
They keyword here is, of course, “compromise.” The great champions of sport, and particularly F1, deal on a no-compromise-basis. Refusing to give an inch has seen them—Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, to name just three—cross the line and end up looking foolish on occasion, but such ruthlessness is almost certain to see you succeed more often than you fail.
And Hamilton refused to give an inch when under attack by Rosberg in Bahrain with a stunning display of defensive driving. The former McLaren driver covered every base, running his teammate out of road when he needed to and making his Mercedes W05 as wide as the track surface.
Hamilton’s protection of the lead, however, was undoubtedly aided by Rosberg’s predictable, half-hearted attempts to overtake. If there is such a thing as “cautious attacking,” the German perfected it here.
Perhaps it was due to the fact that he was racing against his teammate, but you never got the feeling that Rosberg—even when side by side with Hamilton in the middle of a corner—was truly committed to, nor confident in, pulling off a move.
For someone who is regarded by many as the most intelligent driver on the grid, Rosberg displayed an alarming lack of imagination and invention in Bahrain.
His persistence in attempting to pass Hamilton on the outside of the exit of Turn 4 was bizarre when you consider the vast amount of run-off area which surrounds that point of the Sakhir circuit, making it easy for defending drivers to simply push their aggressors off the circuit to retain their position.
The undercut, the tactic which sees drivers straighten their car earlier on the exit of a corner to benefit from better traction, would almost certainly have served Rosberg better, with the extra variety giving Hamilton more to think about and therefore increasing his chances of making a mistake. A mistake under pressure, you will recall, is what saw Hamilton concede pole position to Rosberg little more than 24 hours earlier.
In addition, a successful undercut would have given Rosberg the inside line ahead of the right-left chicane of Turns 6 and 7, meaning he wouldn’t have been edged off the road as he so often was by his teammate.
Yet, time and again Rosberg tried the heroic move around the outside, and time and again Hamilton absorbed and dealt with it.
Rosberg’s occasional looks down the inside of the right-hand hairpin of Turn 1 reeked of utter desperation and controlled recklessness, particularly on the 53rd lap—only five laps from the end of the race—when he broke so late to the point where he delayed Hamilton from turning in.
This gave Rosberg the lead, but what followed was most disappointing. Like Webber before him, Rosberg left too much room and allowed his world champion teammate to counter-attack, squeeze through and regain first place. In that situation, a Vettel- or Hamilton-type of driver would have swept across the circuit and assumed control, effectively dictating the acceleration of the car behind ahead of the sweeping left-hander of Turn 2.
Rosberg, though, appeared to do himself a disservice by allowing Hamilton space, which denied the German another chance to attack at Turn 4. Although, given what had gone before, it needn’t have mattered.
The German’s reaction in parc ferme and during the podium ceremony was reflective of his driving: a little too nice, too kind and too congratulatory.
Although he played an instrumental role in providing the most thrilling grand prix for some time, Rosberg’s courteous, polite persona toward Hamilton after such an intense battle suggests that—in a week which saw his own team boss predict inter-team fireworks—he might, strangely for someone with a champion’s DNA, lack the selfishness that a Formula One title winner needs in his repertoire.
This season could represent Rosberg’s one and only chance of claiming the crown. It is, therefore, imperative that he extracts the most out of every opportunity, no matter how small.
If Mercedes’ dominance continues to last all season, it is highly likely that the championship will be decided by the smallest of margins. And the seven points he lost to Hamilton in Bahrain, which could so easily have been seven points gained, may be decisive when the chequered flag falls for Rosberg in Abu Dhabi in November.
Nice guys, after all, finish last.