Spicing up the Formula One season

Last Updated 21 June 2014, 16:37 IST

The first seven races in this season, dominated so far by one team — Mercedes — have been rich with a poignant drama between the two leading drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

The teammates, who have won six of the seven races, come from contrasting backgrounds though they have known and raced against each other since they were teenagers.

 Tensions between the two blew open at the Monaco Grand Prix last month, after Hamilton said that his poorer upbringing made him hungrier than Rosberg — who he said had grown up with “jets and hotels and boats.” But Hamilton then tried to nuance the comment.

 “I used to travel around with Nico in his dad’s plane, I used to go to his boat, I used to go to his house,” Hamilton said, referring to Rosberg’s father, Keke, a former Formula One world champion. “And that gave me the desire to want that one day, which gave me the hunger. It was his dad, obviously, who inspired me to be where I am today.”

 Indeed, there is a fraternal aspect to the drivers’ relationship, almost like that of two brothers vying for attention in the same family.

 Six months older than Rosberg, Hamilton, 29, is of mixed-race origin, with a white English mother and a black father from Grenada. His parents separated when he was two years old, and he grew up in a middle-class environment in Stevenage, England, with his father struggling through multiple jobs to support his son’s karting career.

When he was still a boy of about 10, Hamilton presented himself to Ron Dennis, owner of the McLaren team, and told him that he wanted to drive for the team one day.

 At 13, Hamilton was signed to McLaren’s driver-development programme. He raced on the same karting team as Rosberg at 15, and Hamilton pursued his desire to best his teammate beyond the track: He took up unicycling to outdo Rosberg, who also rode a unicycle. Hamilton won the karting title.

 In his debut Formula One season with McLaren in 2007, when he was 22, he nearly won the title, losing by one point to Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen. Hamilton went on to win the title the following year, becoming the youngest world champion in history at the time. (Sebastian Vettel broke the record in 2010.)

 Rosberg, meanwhile, had another kind of handicap: suspicion that he got his chance to race in Formula One thanks to his famous name. His father is Finnish and his mother is German, and he grew up in Monaco, where he has since won the Grand Prix twice, this year and last.

 But not until this year has his talent become truly appreciated by many. He joined the series with Williams in 2006 and spent four years at that illustrious team, where his father won his title in 1982. But it was a low period for Williams, and Rosberg never scored a pole position or won a race.

In 2010, he joined the new Mercedes team, where he was partnered with Michael Schumacher, who had just returned to the series after three years in retirement.

During that time, Rosberg scored the team’s only pole position and won its only race - in 2012 - while Schumacher never managed a podium finish. Even so, the team decided last year to hire another world champion, Hamilton, to ensure it had a top-quality driver to take the team to the next level.

Hamilton finished in fourth place and Rosberg in sixth in the series last year. But Rosberg won two races and scored three pole positions, while Hamilton won one race and scored five poles.

In the first race of 2014, the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, Rosberg triumphed after Hamilton’s car broke down. Hamilton then won the next four races, but it was only at the Spanish Grand Prix, the fifth race, that he finally took over the lead, as Rosberg had been finishing the races in second place.

But Rosberg immediately responded, with a victory in the next race, in Monaco.
 Under pressure during that race, Hamilton complained frequently to his engineers and expressed anger at having been cheated of potential victory by the team through questionable strategy.

The difference in style and character between the two was evident when Rosberg answered a question about his strategy: “I know I can rely on them to make the right call at all times, so it’s not something that I’m thinking too much about.”

 After Rosberg scored pole position in the next race, in Canada, it became clear that even though Hamilton was considered the faster driver - he had won three times on the Montreal track - Rosberg had a level of talent that many had not seen before. He finished second while Hamilton retired, allowing the former to take a 22-point series lead.

 The feud has brought to mind that of the McLaren teammates Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna in the late 1980s. Hamilton himself said that he would take care of Rosberg the way Senna had Prost. But asked if he felt a link to the legendary feud, Rosberg said he “had heard” that people were making the comparison, “and in a way I am honoured,” because “that was an extremely high level, and leading the way at that time.”

(Published 21 June 2014, 16:37 IST)

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