Formula One needs Nico Rosberg to put up a fight against Mercedes-GP teammate Lewis Hamilton
One of the most anticipated moments of any Formula One season is the first qualifying session of the year.
Yes, the cars have already been on track in 2016 in pre-season testing, but Saturday’s one-hour period to decide the starting grid is what really matters.
You see that is where the picture becomes clear on just who is where in the standing order.
Testing can tell you so much, but it is only when everyone is on track at the same time, in the same conditions, with the same goal of going as fast as they possibly can, that the truth on just how fast, or slow, a team or driver is, becomes clear.
Nico Rosberg’s highs and lows against Mercedes GP teammate Lewis Hamilton
Saturday’s qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix will be important as ever, but despite the fact they have been teammates for three seasons already, it could be the most important yet for Mercedes-GP’s Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
Hamilton won the past two world titles, but it was Rosberg who finished the past season with the momentum, winning the final three races of the season, the last being the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November.
But the German’s form went back even further than that, taking pole position for the final six races of 2015, the first time in Hamilton’s career that he had been beaten by a teammate in so many qualifying sessions in a row.
Rosberg’s renaissance added a degree of intrigue to the end of a dull season.
Had he made a step up? Or had Hamilton turned his thoughts to putting his flip flops on and thinking about his holidays once he had wrapped up his third drivers’ title with three races to spare?
Saturday will give us our first answer as the pair go up against each other for the first time in anger since they duelled at Yas Marina Circuit almost three months ago.
With Mercedes appearing to still have a marginal edge on raw pace over the rest of the field from the testing in Barcelona, F1 badly needs the Rosberg seen at the end of last season, who out-performed Hamilton in all facets of a race weekend, to be on show, not just in Melbourne, but in the 21 races that comprise the year.
Last year was one of the worst F1 has offered in a long time. Little track action at the front, confusing rules, and few competitive teams on the grid.
It was the same in 2014, but the cracks had been covered by the fight between Hamilton and Rosberg, which had gone to the wire before going the Briton’s way.
That had flattered Rosberg in hindsight, as only mechanical failures and bad luck had prevented Hamilton from running away with things then.
In 2015, with better fortune, he did just that, triumphing in 10 of the first 16 races, and the evident cracks in the running and structure of F1 became more exposed to the outside world without a drivers’ championship fight to divert attention.
Read more: 2016 Formula One (F1) schedule in UAE time
F1 needs Rosberg to put up a fight, but he also must do for himself as this could be his very last chance to follow in the footsteps of his father Keke and become a world champion.
This is the last year of Rosberg’s current Mercedes contract, and with drivers of the ilk of Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen on the German’s marque radar, and with Hamilton on a longer deal that expires in 2018, it is the 30 year old who is most at risk if the decision is made to make a change.
Given Mercedes are the best chance of winning races right now, with Ferrari the next strongest package, and if he cannot have a drive with either of those teams, then his hopes of becoming champion, at least anytime soon, will be dented severely.
Rosberg has proven, on his day, that he can beat Hamilton in a straight fight. What he has not demonstrated is that he can do it consistently when it matters.
Beating Hamilton three times in a row in Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi was no mean feat, and Hamilton, despite his best attempts to demonstrate otherwise post-race with displays of laconic behaviour, did care about losing, you only had to to listen to his whining about pit strategy on the team radio to realise that.
Beating Hamilton in qualifying and then Sunday’s 58-lap race in Melbourne will be a huge statement of intent that Rosberg means business and can be a force to be reckoned with.
If Ferrari are more competitive than in 2015 and Sebastian Vettel is in a position to push Mercedes even harder than it is doubly important that Rosberg starts the season well.
If Vettel is a real threat to Mercedes then it could lead to the team having to focus their energies on their best hope of taking the title.
You know Hamilton would not be shy about demanding all of Mercedes’s attention if that scenario did become a reality, so the crucial thing for Rosberg is to ensure he does not leave himself in that position to be asked.
It is 10 years since Rosberg made his debut in F1 with Williams in Bahrain.
He has proven enough already that is a very good driver, you do not win 14 times and take 22 poles without having a bit about you, but the jury is still out on whether he is a great.
That is usually judged on championships, and they are only ever won with combinations of great speed, race craft and consistency.
Rosberg has shown flashes of those traits, but never over a sustained period when championships have been at stake.
The finale to last year gave shoots of optimism for him, but starting this weekend it is now or never for the German.
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Published: March 15, 2016 04:00 AM