For the 11th time this season, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix podium was a Mercedes one-two. That Nico Rosberg should have headed Lewis Hamilton for the third consecutive race weekend was neither here nor there in terms of this year’s title race, with the Briton having tied up his third world title in Austin.
– F1: Nico Rosberg wins Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
– INTERVIEW: Vatteri Bottas on Finland’s F1 rivalry
– Yas Marina Circuit: A track record of F1 drama
– #Life360: The UAE’s search for an F1 star of its own
But the wider ramifications could yet resonate in 2016, with a previously confidence-drained Rosberg like a driver reborn for the final weekends of the season.
After Austin with the title gone, Rosberg was asked if the 2016 season started from that point. His answer was a fairly certain “no” but looking back to that moment he must surely now think otherwise. It is clear that Hamilton has been rattled by the manner in which he’s been repeatedly kept at bay by his team-mate.
One could argue that the Briton has eased off with the title secured and that his apparent partying ever since was the reason for the sudden late swing in results. Hamilton’s body language and comments of late would suggest otherwise.
Maybe, just maybe Rosberg, who all season long has lost both the mind games and the on-track battles to his teammate, has finally got into Hamilton’s head.
If so, there’s every chance that even with a third title to his name that will eat into the Hamilton mindset for the close season. Next season may just be Rosberg’s last chance to be crowned world champion and he needs to start the season like the driver we’ve seen in recent weeks and who was also in the groove for periods of the previous 2014 season.
All sport desperately needs rivalries and Formula 1 is no different and in fact, is in need more than most of some real excitement. The reality was that the current campaign, which reached its conclusion in Abu Dhabi last night, belonged solely to one driver who rarely looked troubled en route to the easiest of his world title wins.
So, what of the rest in the ensuing four months between now and the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on 20 March? Who will be nipping at Mercedes’ heels and keeping them honest in the title race?
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 29, 2015
A reduction from three winter tests to just two for the coming season does not help the cause of the chasing pack but it is clear that Mercedes are worried about Ferrari, who currently look the only realistic challengers.
The latest specification of the Ferrari engine has supposedly erased the 20bhp advantage that Mercedes boasted at the season start, an impressive turnaround although that has not quite materialised in terms of track results. Part of the Ferrari gain is believed to have come from fuel and oil supplier Shell, which produced data recently to suggest it had delivered a 25 per cent gain for Ferrari, which has helped the team move from fourth in the constructors’ standings to second.
Ferrari boss Maurizio Arrivabene has declared himself finally happy with the team’s engine, the focus instead shifting to the aerodynamic advantages it needs to exploit to close a still sizeable gap to Mercedes and become, as most are now predicting, the next dominant force in F1.
To do that, the team needs to improve its qualifying pace. Only then can it realistically challenge Mercedes for the grand prix victories on a consistent basis. And its cause looks likely to be helped by a fairly big tie-up with F1 newcomers Haas, although Mercedes bosses have been making their displeasure known to the FIA of such a relationship in recent weeks.
One of the Mercedes’ frailties – as seen in Singapore – was with tyres, the team suddenly enduring an incredible drop in pace and both Hamilton and Rosberg complaining of struggling to get heat into their tyres. Next season, Pirelli will introduce a fifth compound – “the ultrasoft” – and teams will be able to choose from three rather than two compounds of tyres hopefully paving the way for a bit more a lottery in terms of race results.
Whether that paves the way for a change of dominance in F1 remains to be seen. One suspects Red Bull and Williams will once more be competitive but aren’t expected to cause too many headaches for either Mercedes or Ferrari.
Money problems for most of the rest of the grid means that realistically they will scrap over the middle order once more, bar McLaren who have thrown a sizeable investment into this season and next. But all season long things haven’t exactly improved and, with the suggestion being that Fernando Alonso could take a sabbatical next season, the growing feeling is that 2016 could be another howler of a year for the team as they try to get the best out of a nascent relationship in Honda.
As said before, F1 needs rivalries and consistent competitiveness if it is to stop fans turning away from the sport. Next season the hope is that Hamilton, Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel at the very least will battle it out. Let’s hope we are not left disappointed again.