Red Bull Gifts Formula One World Driving Championship To Nico Rosberg

 

The final Formula One face of the 2016 season in Abu Dhabi held some anxious moments for championship leader Nico Rosberg. His teammate, Lewis Hamilton, drove a very defensive race, often circulating as much as 2 seconds off the pace in order to let the competition catch up to Rosberg. Was that dirty pool on Lewis’ part? Formula One fans will disagree on that point. Some will accuse Hamilton of being a poor sport but I have seen the legendary Michael Schumacher do similar things during a race. Some consider Der Mikel as the greatest racing driver ever.

Hamilton needed to win in Abu Dhabi and have Rosberg finish no higher than fourth in order to win the 2016 driver’s champion. In the final 8 laps, both Max Verstappen and Sebastien Vettel were able to close in on Roberg. Both were snapping at his heels as first one and then another Mercedes team executive got on the radio to order Hamilton to drive faster.

As NBC Sports commentator Steve Matchett explained, racing drivers all sign contracts that obligate them to obey instructions from the team. Several times, both team principle Toto Wolff and technical director Paddy Lowe were heard on the radio saying, “Lewis, this is an instruction. You must drive faster.” Hamilton coolly replied, “I am leading this race and I am quite comfortable with this pace.” In other words, “We’ll discuss it after the race but for right now I am ignoring you.”

In the end, the challenge from Verstappen and Vettel faded and the Mercedes drivers finished 1-2, making Nico Rosberg the 2016 Formula One World Driving Championship. He and his father Keke now join Graham and Damon Hill as the only father and son WDC winners in the history of the sport. Nico did a great job dealing with the pressure of his obstreperous teammate in front and the challengers coming up from behind. He is a worthy world champion and deserves the driving title. Well done, Nico.

While the championship was sealed in Abu Dhabi, the result was actually set up by the Red Bull team at the Brazilian grand prix two weeks before. Here’s the back story. In a torrential downpour, 19 year old phenom Max Verstappen was tearing up the track. Where others were spinning, Verstappen was passing on the outside of some turns and the inside of others. He was passing in ways no one thought possible.

Racing fans will tell you that those who can drive in the rain are the most talented of all. Verstappen’s drive in Brazil was a clarion call that he is a world champion in waiting. Many compared his drive in the wet to the late Ayrton Senna, who was also able to raise his game on a wet track in ways that others could not. Young Max muscled his way past Nico Rosberg for second place and set off through the spray to hunt down race leader Hamilton. Now here’s where it gets interesting.

Prior to the Brazilian grand prix, Mercedes team principle Toto Wolff placed a phone call to Max’s father, former Formula One driver Jos Verstappen. He asked Jos to have a gentle word with his son and suggest he restrain his competitive fire enough to not interfere in the title fight between Lewis and Nico. It is believed a similar call went to the top management of Red Bull racing.

With Max Verstappen storming through the gathering gloom, Red Bull suddenly and inexplicably called him into the pits for new rain tires. The TV commentators were clearly incredulous, since every other car in the race was on the same tires as the Red Bull and all had about the same number of laps on them. In the end, Verstappen finished third after a brilliant drive. But had he hung on and avoided that unscheduled stop, he would have finished second. Instead of Nico being able to motor around in relative serenity in Abu Dhabi knowing all he had to do was finish on the podium to win the driver’s championship, Rosberg would have needed a win in the final race to claim the title.

Did Red Bull throw the Formula One championship Nico’s way? Several times this year the team has made strategy calls from the pits that were frankly baffling. In the final race, Red Bull started Daniel Ricciardo on the supersoft tires. Everyone else at the front of the field were on the ultrasoft tires. In theory, Smilin’ Dan could have run deep into the race and made just one pit stop. That would have given him about a 22 second advantage and put him in a position to fight for the lead at the end of the race.

Again inexplicably, the team called him for new tires just one lap after the leaders pitted. Once more the commentators were left to scratch their heads and marvel at the distinctly odd strategy calls from the Red Bull brain trust. So, did Red Bull gift the world driving title to Nico Rosberg in Brazil? If Verstappen had finished second in that race and Hamilton finished first in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton would have won the driver’s championship by 2 points over Rosberg.

These sorts of questions have no clear answer, obviously. They are the sorts of things that racing fans argue about over beers (make that several beers) years later. If you have an opinion, please fell free to take full advantage of the comments section below.

 





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I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I'm interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.
  • You could also argue that RBR kept Hamilton in the fight after the way the bungled Monaco. Still, good insight and history- not sure Nico “won” the WDC, but he’s got it. Now let’s see if he defends that legacy better than Kimi, shall we?

  • James Rowland

    I have a suggestion: When a team throws a race in order to favour one of its drivers over the other, it should be disqualified from the constructors’ championship.

  • Michael

    I have a prediction, RBR will be running Mercedes power plants next season

    • They just signed on for two more years of TAG.

      • Steve Hanley

        Yup. After slamming Renault repeatedly last year in the harshest terms possible, the two have kissed and made up. The way Red Bull screamed about Renault’s incompetence, I was surprised Carlos Ghosn didn’t call Dieter Makeashitload personally and tell him to go shit in his hat and pull it down over his ears!

        • Wait, that’s not what happened?

      • Michael

        Contracts aren’t worth much in F1

  • ericr52

    You omit the glaring fact that Lewis’ first win of 2016 was gifted to him by Red Bull. Selective memory?

    • Steve Hanley

      Absolutely!

      In baseball, they always talk about how the games at the end of the season are more important than the ones at the start. That is patently absurd, as a win is a win is a win. But it continues to be accepted wisdom.

      I take your point, sir. There are always many points during a season when a driver’s fortunes can rise or fall and he is not always in control of such moments.

      Let’s leave it at this. Red Bull consistently exhibited the worst tactical decision making during the 2016 season, often doing things that defied logic.

      • kvleeuwen

        Promoting Verstappen mid-season defied logic (for some) but was not the worst decision 🙂
        But yes, strange things have happened…

  • Disqusor

    “Doping” ?

  • trackdaze

    Aren’t we forgetting if hamilton wasn’t driving at optimum pace rosberg should have been in position to pass him, no?

    One suspects the team could rely on rosberg to foĺlow team orders in holding position.

    • Steve Hanley

      Well, yes. In the past we have heard teams respond to pleas to get one driver or another out of the way with the instruction to simply pass the slower driver. In this case, Nico could have knocked Lewis off the track. If neither finished the race, Nico would still be crowned WDC.

      But Lewis would have responded by picking up the pace, which would have been an embarrassment to all concerned.

      Lewis needed Nico to finish 4th or worse. It was a long shot, but he did everything he could to make that possible. The interesting question is whether, if the situation was reversed, Nico would have slowed down to put Lewis under pressure and whether Nico would have obeyed the explicit team orders to increase his pace. I suspect he would have.

      Racing drivers are not trained to be gentlemen. What Lewis did was bizarre, but I do not fault him. Ayrton would have done the same. Schumacher would have done the same. Nigel would have done the same. I think Fernando would have done the same.

      The only thing that made it noteworthy is that no one can recall a driver doing this quite as aggressively as Lewis did. Doesn’t make him wrong to try it. At least he didn’t put other drivers at risk of injury or death the way Flavio Briattore and Nelson Piquet, Jr did in Singapore several years ago.

      • trackdaze

        Rosberg maybe too much a gentlemen for the sport then.

        If not then a rerun of Senna accidentally running into the back of Prost to clinch the title in 1990 situation was a real possibility.

  • Ed