Nico Rosberg's gearbox failure midway through Sunday's British Grand Prix handed victory to his teammate and championship rival, Lewis Hamilton. It was Hamilton's second victory at his home race, delighting the large crowd of heavily partisan supporters at Silverstone.
More importantly, though—particularly for non-Brits—Hamilton's victory combined with Rosberg's retirement means the Drivers' Championship is once again wide open.
Following Rosberg's victory in Austria two weeks ago—his third-straight finish ahead of Hamilton—he had opened a 29-point gap in the championship table and looked like a heavy favourite to take the crown. In the span of one race, that has all changed.
Prior to this weekend, Rosberg's car had seemed bulletproof. While Hamilton had suffered DNFs in Australia and Canada, Rosberg had finished first or second at every grand prix. Even in Montreal, where both Mercedes had the same Energy Recovery System issue, Rosberg had still nursed his car home second.
We now know that his invincibility was just an illusion. And Rosberg's retirement is exactly what this season needed. Mercedes is already running away with the Constructors' Championship and Rosberg was in danger of doing the same with the Drivers' title.
"You never want to see a team-mate fall behind, we wanted to really work and get those one-twos," Hamilton said during the post-race podium interview, "but at the end of the day I really needed this result so I’m very grateful for it."
Had Rosberg won at Silverstone, even with Hamilton second, his lead would have been extended to 36 points. Instead, it is down to four and this season is continuing on a similar trajectory to 1988. That year, McLaren teammates Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost won every race but one and fought back and forth all season before the Brazilian eventually claimed that title.
If there is anything that can kill interest in an F1 season, it is an uncompetitive championship. When Sebastian Vettel won the last nine races of the 2013 season, viewership numbers plummeted (although some of the drop can be explained by the shift away from free-to-air broadcasters).
In the 2013 F1 Global Media Report (via Autosport), CEO Bernie Ecclestone wrote that: "The less-than-competitive nature of the final few rounds, culminating in the championship being decided ahead of the races in the USA and Brazil, events which often bring substantial audiences, had a predictable impact on reach."
This year, the battle between the two Mercedes drivers—on and off the track—has been fascinating. It is in the best interests of fans, sponsors and pretty much everyone else involved in the sport that it continue for the rest of the season.
The problem with Rosberg's gearbox should also provide a psychological boost to Hamilton. Until this weekend, nearly everything that had gone wrong at Mercedes this year—from slow pit stops to retirements—had happened to him. Now, Rosberg has had a taste of the frustration Hamilton felt after Melbourne and Montreal.
Hamilton will also be encouraged by the knowledge that he probably had the pace to beat Rosberg even if the German had not retired. Following the race, per the Mercedes website, Hamilton said, "After extending my first stint, we switched to the prime tyres and I honestly couldn't believe the pace that I had and was closing up to Nico."
Even in the first stint, after Rosberg had opened a lead of 5.783 seconds on Lap 9 according to the FIA's timing stats, Hamilton closed the gap to under three seconds by the time Rosberg made his first stop, on Lap 18.
In the end, Hamilton did not need to pass his teammate on track, but that will not make the victory any less sweet. Halfway through the season, the title race is basically starting from scratch. "We’ll draw a line under the last nine races and now it’s attack mode, start again," the Brit said in the post-race press conference.
If the second half of the season is as entertaining as the first, we are all in for a real treat.
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