F1 2016 Head-to-Head: Lewis Hamilton vs. Nico Rosberg at Mercedes

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F1 2016 Head-to-Head: Lewis Hamilton vs. Nico Rosberg at Mercedes
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At the end of another long, hard race at the end of another long, hard Formula One season, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg sat side by side for the final time in 2015.

With their overalls still damp with Abu Dhabi podium rosewater, the Mercedes drivers—along with third-placed Kimi Raikkonen—sat in the televised post-race press conference, where they were asked a particularly revealing question: Just who would enter the winter break feeling the happiest?

Would it be Rosberg, who ended a largely unconvincing season on a high by claiming six consecutive pole positions and three straight victories? Or would it be Hamilton, the newly crowned three-time world champion who dominated much of the campaign but suffered a notable drop in performance when the title was wrapped up with three rounds to spare?

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As the winner of the grand prix, Rosberg was the first to respond and offered his thoughts before James Allen, the master of ceremonies, had even reached the end of his question.

"I'm feeling very happy!" Nico chirped, allowing himself a chuckle as he did so, before the attention turned to Lewis.

As Allen put the same question to Hamilton, detailing his 2015 achievements, Rosberg briefly turned to look at his team-mate, which seemed to trigger a reaction from the three-time world champion.

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Previously slumped back in the unfamiliar surroundings of the runner-up seat, Hamilton suddenly leaned forward, sat upright and began to tug at the chest of his fireproof top in an almost boastful manner as he started his own reply.

"I think being world champion sounds a lot better than winning the race, so that's good," he declared with a nod and grin, putting Rosberg's accomplishments firmly into perspective.

Having claimed two titles and 21 victories in relatively comfortable fashion since the beginning of 2014, Hamilton is in no doubt of his superiority over Rosberg, who has just 11 wins to show for Mercedes' dominance over that period, as a racing driver.

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As an "important figure at Mercedes" recently told the Guardian's Paul Weaver, Hamilton, who has had three full seasons to closely assess the German's strengths and weaknesses, feels he should be 0.3 seconds faster than Rosberg every single time he rolls out of the pit lane.

Once his sparring partner in karting and a semi-serious threat to him at the summit of F1, Rosberg, in the eyes of Hamilton, per Andrew Benson of BBC Sport, is now a whining nuisance who will occasionally get in his way and try a dirty trick or two but ultimately prove unable to beat him over the course of a season.

Rosberg's failure to match him on a regular basis has left the three-time world champion on the lookout for a new challenge, and it will be fascinating to observe how Hamilton handles his team-mate should Ferrari, as expected, close the gap to Mercedes in 2016.

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With Raikkonen as his designated wingman, four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel will be in a prime position to capitalise upon any bickering between the Mercedes drivers in the same way Raikkonen himself did when Hamilton and Fernando Alonso fought between themselves at McLaren in 2007.

Hamilton has always prided himself on his hard but fair approach both on and off track, telling Autosport's Ian Parkes—as you would expect—that he would never disregard his team's instructions to win a race. But circumstances may force him to take the law into his own hands and finish Rosberg off once and for all, condemning the German to a life as Mercedes' No. 2 driver.

His antics in the final three races of 2015, when he repeatedly pleaded with the pit wall to do something, anything, to help him pass Rosberg—even ignoring the team's request to pit during the Mexican Grand Prix—suggested Hamilton is increasingly comfortable experimenting with the dark arts.

And while it would sacrifice short-term pain for long-term gain, a Multi-21-style deed—public enough to destroy Rosberg's confidence, brazen enough to undermine his status within the team—would afford Hamilton the breathing space required to fend off Vettel in an exclusive, head-to-head battle.

That, of course, is on the assumption that Rosberg will be capable of sustaining the form he showed in late 2015, when each of those poles and victories were even more impressive than the last.

Although Mercedes remain faithful to their policy of equality for now at least, they appear to be taking tentative steps toward moulding Rosberg into an unofficial No. 2 driver after executive director Toto Wolff told Parkes the team will make him wait for a new contract, despite Hamilton's signing of a three-year extension in May 2015.

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Such a comment was disrespectful in the context of Rosberg's five years of service to Mercedes, and most unfair ahead of what could be the defining season of his career. Yet rather than concerning himself with earning another contract with half an eye on 2017 and beyond, Rosberg should view this year as his very last chance to win the title.

His recent revival was built upon his ability to combine a short-term, race-by-race outlook with a newfound aggression, particularly off the start line, which made Hamilton think twice before trying his luck at Turn 1.

Should he maintain that approach, Ferrari's intrusion in the title battle—even if, as in 2015, he occasionally loses points to Vettel and Raikkonen—can only be a positive for Rosberg, allowing him to become the underdog as the 2016 campaign lives up to its billing as a Lewis-versus-Seb extravaganza.

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As noted at the end of 2015, Rosberg should take inspiration from his former Williams team-mate Mark Webber—another driver deemed to lack the substance of a world champion—who also lost the title to his team-mate at a season finale in Abu Dhabi and, like the German, spent much of the following year healing from that near miss.

Following a strong end to 2011, however, the Australian recovered to win races and challenge for the title until the closing months of 2012, a season cherished for the battle between Alonso and Vettel.

But even if Rosberg does emulate Webber in his own season of new beginnings in 2016, there is an inescapable feeling that Hamilton has already moved on.

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Shortly after sealing his third championship at last year's United States GP, where he equalled Ayrton Senna's title tally just weeks after surpassing his boyhood idol's race-victory record, Hamilton admitted he had no defined target for the rest of his career but promised to carry "the baton" as far as he could, per Benson.

No longer burdened by his own expectations, Hamilton—as long as he remains focused and proves his mediocre end to 2015 was nothing more than a title winner taking his foot off the gas—has the freedom to continue racking up the grand prix victories and titles, cementing his legacy by taking on and beating drivers of Vettel's stature.

Rosberg, as ever, will be lurking in the background, waiting for mistakes and hoping for opportunities. But the cold, hard truth is that Hamilton now has bigger fish to fry.

 

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