The Nico Rosberg/Lewis Hamilton accident in Barcelona was exceeded in news terms only by the identity of the resultant race winner – 18-year-old Max Verstappen. But while arguments raged about blame for the accident, it was a lot of noise about not very much – in isolation. In terms of the driver market it may yet be the defining moment of the season.
Any driver worth their salt, in a potentially title-winning car where the only realistic opposition for the world championship was their team-mate, would have done what each of them did in the situation they faced in Barcelona. Had Rosberg not – without ambiguity – moved right to block the inside line once he realised he was in the wrong engine mode, and therefore vulnerable, he could not be taken seriously as a world-class F1 driver. Similarly, there would have been something wrong had Hamilton not immediately tried to pounce aggressively on a problem for his rival. Responsibility to the team be damned. In this moment it’s about raw desire and competitive intensity – and these are fighting animals. At least they should be, in this situation. They each did exactly what they should have done and there is no rule saying that two into one has to fit. It’s meant to happen this way occasionally.
But from a team perspective, how does it fit? Maybe it doesn’t. If this was Rosberg’s response to what happened at Turn One in Austin last year – when Hamilton banged wheels in passing his team-mate, pushing him further to the outside than necessary to claim the lead – Nico’s final, definitive statement of ‘you will not bully me aside’ under any circumstances, then does Mercedes have a problem? It’s not as if Hamilton – contracted until the end of 2018 – is likely to change his style any time soon. Would the end of this season, when Rosberg’s current contract expires, be a good time to break up the partnership?
Verstappen’s amazing victory just underlines the fact that the generations are turning. Mercedes was one of the teams said to be interested in signing the Dutch teenager, but he is now off the market for several years, this the trade-off agreed by the Verstappens as part of his promotion to the senior team from Toro Rosso. But elsewhere Stoffel Vandoorne – flawless on his debut with McLaren in Bahrain as a one-off – is bursting with Verstappen-like potential and Mercedes has two hugely promising rookies of its own in Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon. The latter beat Verstappen to the European F3 championship two years ago, the former has been putting the Manor into some unlikely first-lap positions this season.
One thing that would make it difficult for Mercedes not to renew Rosberg’s contract for at least another year would be if he emerged as 2016 world champion. Turning him loose would cost Mercedes all the promotional benefits associated with having the reigning world champion on hand, not to mention the negative PR of dismissing the guy who’s just won you the title. Williams once made a habit of this – Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill – but that’s an independent team. Mercedes has the thrust of a major corporate marketing department and is justifying its F1 spend on the promotional pay-off.
Hamilton, in the equal fastest car, came to Monaco on an eight-race winless streak. Mechanical problems played their part in that and it would not be unusual if the probabilities soon turned in his favour. If he can overcome that points deficit in the rest of the season and take a third consecutive title, thus denying Rosberg, would it spell the end of Nico’s Mercedes career? Might we see Mercedes holding off on renewing or extending until the championship has been decided? Will Rosberg therefore be fighting not just for the championship, but his very future? In which case, just how hardened will his resolve be next time he’s in one of those 50/50s with Hamilton?