Thomas Maher: Why rain is Rosberg's biggest threat in Brazil's potential title decider
Formula Spy's Thomas Maher looks ahead to a race in which the German could seal his first world title14:00 Friday 11 November 2016, 14:00 11 Nov 2016
The penultimate round of this year's Formula 1 World Championship takes place in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with the battle for the title nicely poised for another tense affair.
Put simply, Nico Rosberg just needs to win this weekend to put away the World Championship and become only the second second-generation driver to do so; with he and father Keke joining Damon and Graham Hill in that very small club. Interlagos has been a happy hunting ground for Rosberg in recent years - he has beaten Lewis Hamilton in every event there together as teammates. He is also undefeated at the circuit in the hybrid era - taking the victory in 2014 and 2015.
However, it's not going to be a simple matter of adding another win to his tally. Rosberg has been coming out second best to Hamilton since Lewis' disastrous engine failure in Malaysia, having been forced to settle for P2 in the US after a badly timed VSC put paid to his alternate strategy and having been simply bested by Hamilton in Mexico. Interlagos isn't a hugely demanding track in terms of power, meaning that Red Bull Racing are likely to be extremely competitive here. Ferrari are also not going to be too far away and, to make life even more complicated for Rosberg, rain is a massive threat in Brazil. Thursday's media day saw a mixture of warm and sunny weather, followed by a deluge. Rain is also predicted for qualifying, and maybe the race.
2008's classic race at Interlagos saw Lewis Hamilton snatch his first World Championship from Felipe Massa after the chequered flag, thanks to a rain shower that saw chaos and differing tyre strategies unfold. Hamilton, having taken on the wet tyres, managed to wrest the position he needed at the final corner on the final lap as he passed a slick tyred Toyota in what was to turn out to be one of the most memorable championship deciders of all time. 2007 saw a three-way fight going into the Brazilian round, with third place Kimi Raikkonen snatching the title by a point from both Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton. Alonso claimed his two titles in Brazil in 2005 and 2006, while Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel have also wrapped up championship wins here in 2009 and 2012 respectively. Should Rosberg wrap it up this weekend, he'll make it a clean sweep of all Champions on the grid winning at least one in Brazil.
Reliability aside, rain is probably Rosberg's biggest threat. His weakest performance of the year came at the damp Monaco Grand Prix, where he suffered from a bizarre lack of pace that saw him cede position voluntarily (with Mercedes instructions) to Hamilton early on and free Lewis up to go and chase for the win. As I said at the time, Rosberg's 'nice guy' act of handing his position to Hamilton could end up costing him the title. Had he even held up Lewis for just one more lap on that day back in May, Ricciardo would have won that race, and Rosberg would have won this year's Championship standing on the podium in Mexico. Instead, he still has to face the possibility of heading to the season finale in Abu Dhabi with it all still to do. Hamilton on the hunt is a ferocious competitor, and Rosberg does struggle to consistently reach his level. We’ve seen drivers able to step up a gear when championships are on the line, and Rosberg limping home consistently P2 to win the title is not going to do his reputation any favours. Defeating Hamilton at this stage of the championship and forcing it into his own hands - that would be far more impressive.
While Red Bull will be an additional headache for the two Mercedes men this weekend, it's not fair to discount Ferrari either. They were Merc's closest competitors here last year, with Vettel not far behind Hamilton on that day. The four-time champion believes that Ferrari are viable competitors this weekend, having shown decent pace in Mexico. Had Verstappen been a little more compliant in giving up his position after his late race error while battling Vettel, as he should have been, the Ferrari would have taken P3 on merit. Vettel was correct in feeling very frustrated by the race stewards afterwards, but should have kept a cooler head on team radio. Screaming "F**k off Charlie [Whiting - Race Director]" could have easily landed Vettel in trouble for bringing the sport into disrepute, and he was fortunate to not land a bigger penalty than the five second time penalty he eventually received for his defence against Daniel Ricciardo. However, Vettel's outburst clearly showed that the drivers are fed up of the inconsistent stewarding and rule enforcement that has marred 2016. With Whiting stepping down from his position after Abu Dhabi after 20 years in the gig, that's one particular factor that will change for next year.
There's been another couple of driver announcements this week too. Renault have announced that Jolyon Palmer will keep his seat and team up with new signing Nico Hulkenberg in 2017 - leaving former McLaren refugee Kevin Magnussen out in the cold after just a season.
Danish reports say that Magnussen turned down a one year extension at Renault, and instead has signed a two year contract alongside Romain Grosjean at Haas. This is yet to be formally confirmed, but seems to be F1's worst kept secret at the moment. Such a move would leave Esteban Gutierrez looking for a seat with not many remaining. Force India have confirmed that Mercedes backed Esteban Ocon will replace the departing Hulkenberg, stepping up from Manor after just half a season.
Interestingly, this means the highly rated Pascal Wehrlein has been overlooked, despite being similarly backed by the German marque. Williams have signed rookie Lance Stroll to replace the retiring Felipe Massa, meaning the remaining seats are the line-ups at Manor and Sauber.
Will Rosberg wrap it up this weekend? My gut says no. I think Lewis Hamilton will manage to close the gap further or even may even strike lucky with a Rosberg retirement and retake the lead in the title chase. F1 has produced plenty of drama this year, and a final sting in the tale is lurking. Brazil usually produces a cracker, and this weekend isn't likely to be any different. My prediction? Whichever Mercedes driver is on top this Sunday will win the title, and I'm not convinced it'll be Nico.
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