As Rosberg achieves an unwanted milestone, can anyone derail his title charge?

Thomas Maher of Formula Spy looks at the order of play on the grid ahead of the Russian Grand Prix

BY Thomas Maher 15:03 Thursday 28 April 2016, 15:03 28 Apr 2016

Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg of Germany celebrates on the podium after winning the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix at Shanghai International Circuit in Shanghai, China, Sunday, April 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

The Rosberg household is one full of statistical titbits in 2016.

With his Chinese GP victory, his third successive win in a row, Nico becomes the winningest driver in F1 that hasn't won the World Championship - a record held by Sir Stirling Moss since his retirement in 1961.

With 17 wins to his name, Nico's closing in on the 20 win tally of recent F1 legends and champions like Mika Hakkinen, Kimi Raikkonen and Damon Hill, and has already exceeded the total tally of Jenson Button.

Victories aren't the issue for the younger Rosberg, just championships. How irksome for him, then, that his very own father holds the record for winning the championship with the fewest victories in a season - just one win in 1982 was enough to clinch the title for the Rosberg with a moustache.

Keke Rosberg and moustache in 1997.  Picture by: Steve Etherington / EMPICS Sport

"He's done a great job," Lewis Hamilton said to CNN about Rosberg after the Chinese GP, a race Nico won by 37 seconds - the largest winning margin since Lewis' win at the 2008 British GP . "I've not really been in the fight with him, so he's had pretty much a breeze for the last three races. Good for him. Enjoy it while it lasts, because you never know how long it will last."

There's nothing particularly biting or controversial about Lewis' observation; it's a straightforward assessment of the opening races of this season. Nico has been lucky so far - not in terms of his wins, but in terms of the misfortune that has prevented Lewis from mounting a serious challenge. China was another hint that 2016 is going to an uphill battle for Hamilton, struck down by an ERS issue with his power unit in qualifying before a scrappy race with broken wings, damage, and a cautious strategy.

He hasn't let his head drop though, saying that "adversity is part of the journey", citing his experience in helping him to keep calm about the 36 point deficit he is seeking to overcome. Heading to Russia, a venue holding a race for just the third time, Hamilton's already been given some good news; the engine problem from China hasn't damaged the power unit terminally, meaning the team can use it again when they wish. That's the upside. The downside is that Sochi is one of the races where Rosberg held the upper hand in 2015, leading until mechanical failure struck on Lap 7 and he was forced to retire. Can the German driver retain that form in this season's race, or will Hamilton finally put a clean weekend together and challenge for the win?

Red Bull driver Daniil Kvyat of Russia steers his car ahead of Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany during the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix at Shanghai International Circuit in Shanghai, China, Sunday, April 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Making both Merc's life difficult is the pace of Ferrari and even Red Bull. The Scuderia look fast, despite having to run conservative engine modes in China due to some reliability concerns. Kimi Raikkonen was the quicker Ferrari man in Shanghai, only to be whacked off the road by his own teammate at the start; Vettel making an uncharacteristic error under some pressure to start getting the team's challenge on track. It's been a messy start to a campaign which still promises much, Ferrari just need to start putting the pieces together or they risk allowing a viable championship challenge from slipping through their grasp. If they continue to throw away their own races, then Red Bull appear ready and willing to step in and challenge.

Despite continuing to be hampered by a lack of outright power from the TAG-Heuer badged Renault power unit in the back, the RB12 was very competitive in China - a track with the longest straight in F1. Ricciardo's front row start and early lead resulted in nothing due to a puncture, but Daniil Kvyat was there to step in and recover the team's afternoon by scoring P3.

Williams F1 Team Deputy Team Principal Claire Williams addresses the annual conference of the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London. Picture by: Dominic Lipinski / PA Wire/Press Association Images

Ricciardo then put in a monstrous recovery to take back P5, showing that Red Bull are almost on Ferrari's pace. This hasn't been lost on the Italian squad either, as they said after China that their decision not to supply the Bulls with current power units has been vindicated. If Ricciardo and Kvyat had a lump in the back that didn't see them constantly out-dragged down the Chinese straight, what could they have achieved? Watch out for them at less power dependant circuits like Catalunya and Monte Carlo - the RB12 is as good as any of the chassis the team have ever built. Just look at how slow the Renault factory team are, and you start to get an idea of why Red Bull were so desperate to drop the French power units for this year.

Behind the expected Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull battle, expect to see Williams, Toro Rosso and Force India play ball to be best of the rest. It's been a disappointing season for Williams so far. Deputy Team Principal Claire Williams said at the 2014 Abu Dhabi GP, where Williams scored a 2-3 and legitimately challenged for the win, that 2015 was a dress rehearsal for a full scale assault on the 2016 titles.

2015 exposed the team's design weaknesses and, while these have been mostly rectified on this year's car, the pace compared to the leading three teams just doesn't appear to be there. Making the tyres work and last appears to be their biggest issue - not an easy fix. The first in-season test at Catalunya after the Spanish GP can't come quickly enough for them. Force India, too, have struggled since the first race, but this is mostly due to collision damage and penalties as opposed to true pace. Sergio Perez scored a podium in Russia last time, thanks to Raikkonen & Valtteri Bottas colliding on the final lap, but repeating that feat will be considerably more difficult this time out. Expect Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen to be solid points scorers, provided that neither encounters any mechanical issues.

Will Hamilton's recovery start this weekend, and end Nico Rosberg's current domination of F1? He's certainly going to be giving it his all: "There is a long, long way to go. As long as I know I have given absolutely everything that is in my physical power and mental abilities, as long as I've given everything, I can never be upset."

"Another 18 races to go, I've still got a great car, I've still got a great team - it's important none of us change anything."

Thomas Maher is the co-founder of Irish motorsport website Formula


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