On a sunny afternoon at Formula One's "Temple of Speed," the Autodromo Nazionale Monza, Lewis Hamilton staked a strong claim to his second-straight Formula One drivers' championship.
Even before his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg's engine blew with two laps remaining in Sunday's Italian Grand Prix, Hamilton was set to extend his championship lead to 38 points with seven races remaining in the season. With Rosberg's flame-out, Hamilton is now 53 points clear. He could retire from the next two races, with Rosberg winning both, and still lead the championship.
Hamilton dominated the entire the weekend, securing his 11th pole position in 12 races, while Rosberg, who was forced to reuse an older engine after suffering problems with his newly upgraded power unit, qualified fourth, behind the two Ferraris.
At the start, Kimi Raikkonen nearly stalled beside Hamilton on the front row. As the cars behind swerved around the slow-moving Ferrari, Hamilton scampered off into the distance, opening a six-second lead on Raikkonen's team-mate, Sebastian Vettel, by the end of Lap 10. Forty-three laps later, as the chequered flag waved, Hamilton was 25 seconds ahead of Vettel.
At this point, Rosberg must be wondering whether his title hopes have irretrievably slipped away this year, but the bigger question is whether he will ever be able to win the championship while paired with Hamilton.
Over the last two years, Rosberg has rarely beaten the 30-year-old defending champ in a straight fight on the race track. Usually, it has taken a car problem or some other drama for the German to come out ahead.
Rosberg is a talented driver, but Hamilton is on another level. He is one of the best drivers of his generation and, by the end of his career, it is not a stretch to think we will look at him as one of the best ever.
Should Hamilton secure his third drivers' title this year, and second in a row for Mercedes, will the team still be able to pretend that their two drivers are equal? Surely Hamilton would be, both literally and figuratively, the golden-haired boy for the Silver Arrows.
Last summer, Rosberg agreed to a multi-year extension with Mercedes, keeping him under contract at least until the end of the 2016 season.
The deal was signed while Rosberg had a four-point lead in the championship (which he would later expand to 29 points). But since then, Hamilton has won 13 of 22 races. Rosberg has won five.
And there is no reason to think that trend will reverse any time soon. If anything, Hamilton seems to be getting stronger and more consistent.
Rosberg, therefore, faces what shall henceforth be known as the Rubens Barrichello/Mark Webber dilemma: Mercedes have the best car and probably will next year as well. But what good is being in the best car if you can't beat your team-mate?
Barrichello sat behind Michael Schumacher for six years at Ferrari while the German won five championships. The Brazilian twice finished second in the drivers' standings and won nine races with the Scuderia, but he never came close to the title.
Webber spent five years with Vettel at Red Bull, and his situation is probably closer to Rosberg's. In 2010, the second year of their partnership, Webber was ahead of Vettel going into the final race of the season (they both trailed Fernando Alonso), but Vettel won the race and the title. He also won the next three, while Webber became the de facto No. 2 driver at Red Bull.
No driver wants to leave a team with the best car, nor admit that they cannot beat their team-mate, but after two or three seasons finishing consistently behind them, well, how else can you interpret the results?
Rosberg was close last season. Despite being outdriven by Hamilton for much of the year, he managed to keep the title chase alive until the final race. This year, Hamilton is on pace to wrap it up before Abu Dhabi.
"Today was a massive step in the wrong direction for me in the championship—but to complain doesn't help in these situations," Rosberg said after the race, per a Mercedes press release. "I just need to keep pushing and come back even stronger. Giving up is not an option for me. I will push hard to turn things in the right direction."
There are still 175 points available over the final seven races, so Hamilton still has a long way to go before clinching another title.
But as Vettel said in the post-qualifying press conference on Saturday (in reference to his chances for a win in the race), "I think dreaming is allowed but nevertheless you have to be realistic."
If Rosberg is not there already, he will reach that stage soon—the stage where realism overtakes optimism. It may be a bit too early for a Hamilton coronation, but his head is already being measured for the crown.
Looking ahead to next year, perhaps Mercedes' rivals will close the gap and provide a consistent challenge at the front of the grid. Maybe Rosberg would be more comfortable if most qualifying sessions and races were not just one-on-one battles between him and Hamilton.
Or maybe Rosberg will conclude that he cannot beat Hamilton in the same machinery and look for a competitive race seat elsewhere.
With another season behind Hamilton, though, Rosberg risks slipping into Barrichello/Webber territory: good drivers who supported great champions but never quite took the last step to the pinnacle of the sport.
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