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Would Nico Rosberg Make a Deserving Formula 1 Champion in 2016?

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistOctober 24, 2016

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 21: Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP gets ready in the garage during practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
Lars Baron/Getty Images

Back in 2014, there was a worry that, assisted by the ridiculous double-points rule, Nico Rosberg could win the Formula One title despite being overshadowed for most of the season by his Mercedes team-mate, Lewis Hamilton.

Indeed, for most of their Mercedes tenure—and even before that—Hamilton has been the better driver. As NBC's Will Buxton pointed out during the broadcast of Sunday's United States Grand Prix, Rosberg has never beaten the Briton over the course of a full season, dating back to their karting days.

Now, though, it looks increasingly likely that Rosberg will beat Hamilton this year and claim his first F1 drivers' title.

The question then becomes: Would Rosberg be a worthy champion, or has he backed into the title thanks to Hamilton's myriad car problems?

Sky Sports commentator Martin Brundle asked Hamilton that exact question on Saturday night, after qualifying in Austin, Texas, in an interview that was broadcast during Sunday's pre-race show.

"I mean, he's done the job with what he has," Hamilton replied, tripping over himself to remain diplomatic. "Obviously he's not had any reliability problems. He's had one DNF, when we crashed [in Spain]. Otherwise, he's had a great run of reliability, and he's done the job with it."

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Rosberg's nemesis, Lewis Hamilton.
Rosberg's nemesis, Lewis Hamilton.Lars Baron/Getty Images

And there is the rub. Hamilton is the better driver, as his career statistics attest, but there is much more to grand prix racing than being the best driver. If that was all that mattered, would Sebastian Vettel have beaten Fernando Alonso in 2012? Would Keke Rosberg or James Hunt or Phil Hill be world champions?

They are all good drivers—great, even—but were they the best drivers the years they won their titles? Maybe. But they also benefited from having the best cars and/or some misfortune that befell a rival.

In F1, sometimes you win because you are the most skilled driver, sometimes because you have the best car, or sometimes because a rival crashes or his engine blows up. Often it is a combination of these factors.

F1 is not a simple sport, and it resists any attempts to boil it down to a head-to-head athletic competition. It is not a 100-metre foot race. There are (literally) too many moving parts.

The fact that Rosberg's worthiness is in question suggests that, in Trump-ian fashion, some people seem unwilling to accept that he could actually beat Hamilton.

Not everyone, though.

"If [Rosberg] wins the championship, I think it will be thoroughly deserved," Sky Sports' Damon Hill said recently. "He's really worked hard. Since the pain in defeat in Austin [in 2015], we all saw a changed person in Nico. He went on to win all the remaining races, and he's put up a very strong challenge this year. Some of his drives have been impeccable."

Nico Rosberg leads Lewis Hamilton at the 2016 Monaco Grand Prix.
Nico Rosberg leads Lewis Hamilton at the 2016 Monaco Grand Prix.Lars Baron/Getty Images

Rosberg has also been opportunistic, outperforming Hamilton at race starts and taking advantage of one of the Brit's few weaknesses. In Australia, Bahrain and Italy, for example, Hamilton qualified on pole but was jumped by Rosberg at the start and never caught up.

It is true that Hamilton has had the lion's share of Mercedes' reliability problems, but those are part of racing. If we started disqualifying every title winner because they had fewer DNFs than this rival or that team-mate, the record books would need a complete rewrite.

In past years, one of the big criticisms of Rosberg was that he could not beat Hamilton in a wheel-to-wheel race. This year, the German has proved that idea wrong, beginning in Melbourne, where the German kept his foot down and pushed the British driver wide at the first corner—a manoeuvre that Hamilton had used several times before against his team-mate.

Despite Hamilton's win on Sunday in Austin, it is now mathematically possible for Rosberg to clinch the title at the next race, in Mexico. Of course, that scenario would require him to win, coupled with a Hamilton DNF (or for him to finish 10th or lower).

If a Rosberg championship does come coupled with another Hamilton DNF, you can only imagine the backlash.

It is OK, though, to admit that Rosberg is a worthy champion while still believing Hamilton is the better driver. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Another reason Rosberg is being doubted is because he has not proved himself yet, earning the benefit of the doubt.

If you switched Hamilton and Rosberg's results this year, no one would say that the reigning champion won because of Rosberg's reliability issues. They would merely be a footnote to the story of Hamilton's ongoing dominance.

Here is the thing, though: If Rosberg does win the title this year, in 20 or 30 years, people won't call him, "The guy who won the world championship because Lewis Hamilton's engine kept breaking down."

No. They will call him a world champion—period.

           

Matthew Walthert is an F1 columnist for Bleacher Report UK. He has also written for VICEFourFourTwo and the Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter:

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