The 2015 Formula One season has barely started, but Nico Rosberg must feel his chances of winning the Drivers' Championship are already slipping away.
Just before Rosberg started his final qualifying lap, the BBC's David Coulthard said, "There are many races to go, but you just get the feeling this is a session where he needs to get in front of Lewis Hamilton."
He wasn't even close. Hamilton's final lap was more than half-a-second quicker than Rosberg's. Even worse, Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel split the two Silver Arrows and will start alongside Hamilton on the front row in Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix. Rosberg will start directly behind his team-mate.
In the post-qualifying press conference, Rosberg looked dejected, annoyed and perhaps confused. Confused that a man in the same car—a man who he out-qualified in 12 of 19 races last season—has now beaten him to pole position at every grand prix this season (and finished ahead of him in all three races, so far).
As the German becomes more and more desperate for a positive result, he has been trying new tricks almost every week.
In the offseason, he tried to improve his breathing behind the wheel. At the Chinese Grand Prix, he complained that Hamilton was holding him up, despite his inability to close the gap between them. Earlier this week, per ESPN F1's Laurence Edmondson, he said he was studying video from his duel with Hamilton at last year's Bahrain race, where Hamilton came out on top.
On Saturday, in the press conference, Rosberg said he had compromised his own qualifying performance by preserving his tyres in Q2 (which he will have to start the race on), which supposedly messed up his rhythm and did not allow him to put in his best lap in the final qualifying session.
Even at Rosberg's best, though, Hamilton's lap might have been untouchable. The Brit's pole time of 1 minute, 32.571 seconds was less than a quarter-of-a-second slower than the Rosberg's 2013 pole lap, the last one set with the old V8 engines.
And Hamilton still felt he had more to give, saying, "You know the laps were pretty good; you can always improve," in the press conference.
A win for Hamilton on Sunday, even assuming Rosberg can beat Vettel and finish second, would put the defending champ 24 points ahead of Rosberg—equal to the largest lead Hamilton had at any point last season until he won the title in Abu Dhabi.
Of course, that same lead could be erased in an instant. Hamilton and Vettel could collide at Sakhir circuit's slow first corner, or a mechanical problem could put the Brit out of the race. But given Hamilton's quick starts and Mercedes' bulletproof reliability (Hamilton's last non-Rosberg-assisted retirement came in Canada, almost a full year ago), those scenarios are less likely than another Hamilton win.
Based on the pace he showed in qualifying, Hamilton might be out of DRS range on Sunday before the system is even activated on the third lap.
However, only four of the 10 Bahrain Grands Prix to date have been won from pole position. Rosberg started on pole the last two years in Bahrain, winning neither race. Last year, anyway, Rosberg was historically bad at converting his pole positions into wins, doing so just three times from 11 chances. Hamilton, meanwhile, started on pole seven times and won six of those races.
But that is all in the past. All that matters right now is the start tomorrow. Can Hamilton pull away or can Rosberg keep him close (or even pass him)? Or can the Ferraris—Kimi Raikkonen is starting fourth, beside Rosberg—insert themselves into the Mercedes battle?
On Saturday, Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff told the official F1 website, "I hope we can finish one two but Ferrari will be a strong contender as we have seen in qualifying with Sebastian making the front row alongside Lewis. I don't say this nonchalantly; I mean it."
Mercedes are obviously worried about their tyre degradation—something which helped cost them the race in Malaysia three weeks ago—with Rosberg admitting he was trying to protect his race tyres in Q2. With a significant gap in performance between the soft and medium tyres, pit stop strategy will be an important factor during the race.
Hamilton does not sound like a man who will be beaten, though. "I'm obviously really grateful to have this beast underneath me, which I can really attack these corners with," he said in the press conference. "I think last year I wasn't comfortable with the car to be able to do so, so it's a great feeling."
Just a reminder: Hamilton held off Rosberg's stiff challenge in Bahrain last year and won 11 of 19 races, overall—and he wasn't comfortable in his car. Now he is.
That is bad news for Nico Rosberg and everyone else trying to catch him.
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