McLaren legend Mika Hakkinen believes the momentum Lewis Hamilton has, having won the last three grand prixs, will not take away much confidence from his title rival Nico Rosberg heading into the championship-deciding showdown in Abu Dhabi this weekend.
The two Mercedes team-mates have taken turns dominating various stretches throughout the 2016 season with Germany’s Rosberg taking a commanding lead to put himself in a strong position to win a maiden world championship crown before Hamilton unleashed his inner beast and triumphed in the United States, Mexico and Brazil to cut his deficit to just 12 points ahead of the last race of the year in the UAE capital.
And while the British three-time world champion clearly has momentum on his side right now, Hakkinen doesn’t think it will
affect Rosberg’s psyche.
“Lewis winning so many grands prix now in a row, it doesn’t take confidence away from Nico because Nico simply just knows that he just has to finish second or third position (to win the title), so he doesn’t really have to try flat-out,” Hakkinen told Sport360 at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi.
“But it can also make him go and do something that isn’t normal for him. Racing drivers, when they’re driving, they are always concentrating on driving flat-out, so they’re not built to drive slowly.”
Hamilton and Rosberg have combined to win 18 of the 20 grands prix contested this season, with each of them topping the
podium nine times. It’s been a tug of war between them all year and it now comes down to the wire.
“Formula One is a mind game,” says Hakkinen, who interrupted Michael Schumacher’s dominance in the ‘90s to take the world title in 1998 and 1999, driving for McLaren.
“You need a great physical condition but it needs a lot of concentration, confidence, from your head basically. So the result that is coming when you’re performing out there, it’s big percentage how you can prepare yourself mentally. It’s been quite amazing to see these variations from Lewis and also from Nico. To be able to maintain your focus all the way throughout the season, I don’t say it’s impossible, but it becomes very difficult because you have so many races.
“My time, when I started F1 I think we had 15 or 16 grands prix. And most of the races were in Europe. Now you’re travelling around the world, non-stop, flat-out, and different time zones, so it’s requiring much more
energy from your mind and your body.”
The Flying Finn, who will be a keen spectator at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this weekend as a brand ambassador for Mercedes and UBS, would not make predictions on who will have the upper hand at Yas Marina Circuit but insists it comes down to who will be better prepared mentally.
“The pressure between these two drivers is enormous. And these couple of days before the grand prix are very crucial, very important, how they’re able to relax, how they’re able to find extra performance in their driving,” says Hakkinen.
“If the team will come to tell Lewis that ‘yes we’ll give you a bit of extra performance’ they have to do the same for Nico. So it’s not going to be an easy situation.
“You have to find this kind of performance inside yourself. It’s important to have ways of doing it and that’s it. We have to wait and see which driver will do the best preparation for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.”
The only other two drivers to win races this season have been Red Bull duo, Daniel Ricciardo and the 19-year-old Max Verstappen.
There was a lot of initial scepticism about having a teenager on the grid but the Dutchman has created waves since he claimed a Toro Rosso seat in 2015 and then moved up to Red Bull, replacing Daniil Kvyat, after the first four races of 2016. In May, he became the youngest driver in F1 history to win a race when he triumphed at the Spanish Grand Prix while making his Red Bull debut.
But his meteoric rise has also come with controversy as he has been involved in numerous incidents with other drivers on the track – behaviour which resulted in Austrian legend Niki Lauda describing him as “arrogant” and “stupid” and someone who is driving too aggressively.
Hakkinen doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
“Max is a great racing driver. I have seen also the way F1 has developed in a very high level, taking care of the drivers and I think that’s also one reason young drivers are capable of competing in F1 at such a young age,” added the Finn.
“Obviously F1 has moved on in data systems in such a level that young drivers are in good shape. When you look at kids these days who are five-years-old, they’re on their phones and iPads all the time. When I was five I was lucky if we had a black and white TV. So they’re at a different level now, what they’ve learnt in such a short time.”
As a sport, F1 has been suffering in recent years and official figures show the sport has shed 200 million TV viewers globally since 2008. The Malaysian Grand Prix, which has been held in Sepang since 1999, will discontinue after 2018 due to falling revenues.
Asked why he thinks people are losing interest in F1, Hakkinen said: “I thought that one thing that can bring more audience to F1 is to have a second tyre manufacturer. Just having one tyre manufacturer, I don’t think it’s good because it doesn’t bring competition.
“So you need competition there and I believe that will be already one step in the way F1 can be more exciting and bring more people to watch grands prix.”
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