Mexico GP Preview - Rosberg can wrap it up
He won in Mexico last year20:51 Saturday 29 October 2016, 20:51 29 Oct 2016
For the first time in his career, Nico Rosberg heads to a Grand Prix with the ability to put the World Championship beyond the grasp of Lewis Hamilton before the season has even ended.
The United States Grand Prix last weekend was the smallest of stumbling blocks for Nico Rosberg. Armed with a 33 point advantage going into the weekend, Hamilton was the quicker driver throughout the event and took pole position which he converted into a comfortable win.
Seeing as its been a venue where Hamilton usually romps home, Rosberg's P2 wasn't the end of the world for him. The German driver only really needs to defeat his teammate once more this year to win the title, and Mexico is the first time in his career that he has the chance to do so away from a season finale.
For Nico to win the title in Mexico City this weekend, he has to walk away with a points lead of 50 or more. As he is currently on 26, he must win the race and have Hamilton finish P10 or lower to secure his first Championship.
This was a race Rosberg dominated last year, taking a controlled win at the first Grand Prix held at the circuit in over two decades. However, this was after Hamilton had seemed to take his foot off the gas towards the end of last season after winning the title, meaning that it's not possible to say whether this is a circuit where Rosberg has the edge.
Certainly, the opening day of practice suggests that it may yet be a tough ask of Rosberg to win the race - Nico's best lap in FP2 was almost half a second slower than Hamilton's. P2 to Hamilton in the race would still be enough for Rosberg to continue limping home to the title, but there's not even a guarantee of that.
While the Circuit Of The Americas last weekend played nicely into the hands of Red Bull Racing, allowing Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen to vie with the Mercedes boys on pace, that'll be a much tougher proposition this weekend.
Mexico has a massively long straight that will expose Red Bull's horsepower deficit. While their car appears a more potent weapon than Ferrari's, the Scuderia's horsepower is superior and practice indicates that Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen are more likely to be Merc's closest competitors this weekend. That's bad news for Rosberg, who really needs clear Mercedes domination to continue and ease his way into P2/P1.
Not that the German driver is settling. Speaking after practice on Friday, he said he had a lot of work to do to ensure he can fight for the win on Sunday: "It’s not been a bad start overall but we have a lot of homework to do tonight."
“The car was feeling okay on the medium tyre but even there we need to make some progress to understand where we can find some performance.”
The danger for Rosberg at this late stage is that he starts over-thinking his position and starts tightening up. Austin was fine for him - after being beaten off the start-line, he settled into P3, knowing that his tyre strategy would allow him to fight back for P2 later in the race.
Had the Virtual Safety Car not been deployed halfway through the race and scuppered his alternate tyre run, he may even have been able to reel Hamilton back in towards the chequered flag. But pressure is an unusual thing - some drivers can handle it and some can't.
Eddie Irvine was one driver whose performances dipped towards the end of 1999 as the pressure ramped up - leaving teammate Michael Schumacher trying to win the title for him.
By contrast, Mika Hakkinen produced a stonking performance right as needed, underlining his reputation. Mark Webber was another one, crashing at Korea 2010 while leading the championship he eventually lost. Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton - they've all shown they have the right stuff under pressure.
Nico Rosberg, for now, has to show that he's capable of maintaining his high level as Hamilton throws everything at him to wrest the championship away. Should Lewis nibble another couple of points away at a "safe" circuit like Mexico where Mercedes should be the best performers, all bets are off as to whether Rosberg will get desperate at the final two rounds.
Mexico also marks the third last race of Jenson Button's (current) career. He was one of the stars of last weekend's race, rising from the very back of the grid to take home a point in a car that's clearly improving. It's improving so much, Fernando Alonso put in an 'Alonso-esque' drive to overtake former teammate Felipe Massa's Merc-powered Williams, before shuffling past compatriot Carlos Sainz in the closing stages.
The P5 that Alonso earned was slightly fortuitous, given the retirements of Raikkonen and Verstappen, but Alonso still preyed on the slightest vulnerabilities of the drivers in front of him and finished in a position that the McLaren-Honda doesn't yet seem fully capable of.
Jenson's sabbatical/retirement timing might be coming at the worst possible time - having suffered through the teething pains of the partnership between McLaren and Honda, the performance appears to now be respectable.
With regulation changes on the way that will bring the cars back to 'old-school' F1 speeds and times, Button's experience could have earned him some very tasty results. Should McLaren actually have a quick package next year, all his hard work will be to Stoffel Vandoorne's fortune as the quick young Belgian takes over his seat.
While the cards are still stacked in Rosberg's favour for the title, don't discount Lewis Hamilton just yet. Having taken his 50th career win last weekend, the British driver is salivating for a fourth title, which would equal his contemporary Sebastian Vettel's tally.
Hamilton is in the position of having nothing much to lose, which makes him just as dangerous as ever. "I can't get fixated on Rosberg's fortunes.
I have to focus on mine, and I am hoping for these last three that I’ll have 100 percent reliability - that would be a real breath of fresh air.
The moment you give up is the moment you lose. I’ve never been one to give up and I don’t plan on starting now.
There are still plenty of points available and anything is possible..."
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