It may seem like the Nico Rosberg-Lewis Hamilton incident from last weekend's Belgian Grand Prix has already been dragging on forever, but the fallout will not fully be felt until the end of the season, and possibly beyond.
Rosberg issued an apology on Friday after meeting with Hamilton and Mercedes executive directors Paddy Lowe and Toto Wolff. But an apology does not give Hamilton or the team back the 25 points they potentially lost due to Rosberg's mistake, especially when the apology seems forced.
If Rosberg actually wanted to apologize for puncturing Hamilton's tyre, he did not need to wait nearly a week to do so. Whether it is true or not, it looks like he only apologized because the team told him to.
Of course, there is a difference between making a mistake and deliberately crashing into someone and, despite Hamilton's comments to the contrary, I believe Rosberg is guilty only of the former.
He saw a small opening and went for it, perhaps thinking Hamilton would give him more space than he did (remember, both drivers made their decisions in a few tenths of a second at 200 kilometres per hour, not after watching a slow-motion, HD replay of the incident 20 times from a variety of angles).
Hamilton also released a statement following the Friday meeting, saying that, "Nico and I accept that we have both made mistakes," hinting that perhaps he is not entirely blameless.
BBC commentator David Coulthard—who has raced in about 247 more grands prix than me and most of the people reading this, combined—wrote in his column for The Telegraph: "Even if the contact was clumsy more than anything else, there was an element of stubbornness to what Nico did. ... Of course, this collision will make some review what happened in Monaco qualifying, but for now I do not think Nico showed any malice in what he did."
After the race in Spa, Hamilton told reporters that Rosberg "basically said he did it on purpose. ... He said he could have avoided it, but he didn't want to," per the BBC's Andrew Benson.
Rosberg denied Hamilton's paraphrasing the next day in his video blog, saying, "My view of the events are [sic] very different."
However, in Friday's apology, posted on his Facebook page, Rosberg wrote: "It was an error of judgement on my part."
But Hamilton is still at a significant disadvantage thanks to the outcome of the contact in Belgium, as Rosberg now leads the championship by 29 points. When Rosberg grabbed a 25-point advantage after the first race of the season, it took Hamilton four races—winning all of them—to reclaim the lead.
If Rosberg continues his near-bulletproof reliability (he has only one DNF this season), a 29-point gap looks more like a canyon.
After Spa, Wolff indicated that Rosberg would be punished, telling the media, "If Lewis has said that it's going to be a slap on the wrist, and that there's going to be no consequence, then he's not aware of what consequences we can implement," per Autosport's Jonathan Noble.
In a statement following the meeting on Friday, the Mercedes team said: "Suitable disciplinary measures have been taken for the incident," without offering any further details. It is likely that Rosberg was fined, but the money will be irrelevant to Rosberg if he wins the title.
In the end, it is a catch-22 for the team. They want to win both the Constructors' and Drivers' Championships, and any punishment that would hamper Rosberg on the track could also hamper both of those goals.
At least, as the Mercedes statement indicated, the drivers "remain free to race" for the title, although they were warned at the same time that "another such incident will not be tolerated."
But what happens if, next time, it is Hamilton who knocks Rosberg out of the race? Would Hamilton be punished more harshly than Rosberg has been, or would there be a tit-for-tat understanding?
Rosberg's apology rings hollow, but Hamilton still has seven races to provide a response on the track.
Going into the next race in Italy, Hamilton must still feel that he has been wronged—and those feelings are completely valid. But the team has done the best they can in very difficult circumstances. Mercedes, contrary to expectations, have publicly committed to not issuing team orders, which would deprive the fans of the only real drama left in this year's championship.
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