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.