There are few better circuits for Formula One to begin the second half of the season than the glorious Spa-Francorchamps, where this weekend breathtaking speed will be balanced by testing corners and spectacular changes of elevation. This year the Ardennes will attract more fans than ever because the number of tickets has been increased to accommodate the Dutch, who are coming en masse to support Max Verstappen in his first race at the track as both a Red Bull driver and .
They are eager now the mid-season break is over to go racing again but while Verstappen is a draw for many perhaps the question looking to be answered at Spa is at the sharp end. What can Nico Rosberg do to defeat his Mercedes team-mate ?
The momentum shift towards the British driver in the latter part of the first 12 races was remarkable. Hamilton was , who had , after the fourth grand prix in Russia but now leads by 19 points, having triumphed in the past four races. Defeated in the world championship twice since Mercedes brought their dominant car to the field in 2014, Rosberg needs to race better than he ever has before, take the fight to Hamilton and, crucially, make a step up he has not managed previously against his team-mate. In short he needs to be punchy and, with should they clash on the track, deadly accurate.
Rested after the summer vacation then, are the feet moving fast? Well, cursory inspection suggests Rosberg is coming out from his corner of the garage hungry at least, with much being made of . In it Rosberg questioned Hamilton’s concerns over safety when the German had after slowing what was adjudged to be just enough when going through waved double-yellows at the Hungaroring. Hamilton had backed off under the flags dropping his quick lap in the process.
“I just think it’s interesting to see how he’s become such a safety freak all of a sudden,” Rosberg said. “That right after a double-yellow flag he decides to go to the people in charge and discuss it.” Adding pointedly: “He’s not known for being such a safety freak.”
The intimation aimed at Hamilton and his intentions was interpreted as another salvo of the psychological battle between the pair and the beginning of the resumption of their hostility for the run-in to the championship. Battle renewed with new steel in the challenger’s gloves.
In reality this was barely sparring. The bulk of Rosberg’s comments were far more indicative of how controlled he is away from the emotional atmosphere of the track and perhaps, even, of what he is lacking.
His relationship with Hamilton was, he continued: “Up and down. It’s always going to be difficult. We have the necessary respect and it’s a good battle.” If that sounds familiar, it is. Not least from July this year when he told the Guardian’s Donald McRae:
More was to come in Wednesday’s interview and again, it was also familiar. “He is now ahead of me at the moment. That means up to now he has done a better job … We are very close on points, so it will keep being a good battle all the way to the end.”
Something on Rosberg’s mind again, back in July before his defeat by Hamilton in Hungary. “He’s done some great things and he’s been beating me. I have to fight back and that’s the awesome challenge,” he told McRae.
Which is becoming as recognisable as was his refrain before the points gap was overcome that his lead proved he had been the better driver thus far in the season. A line long since dropped.
The difficulty is Rosberg is remarkably measured in everything. If he has a new plan it will not be given away lightly. It was in Hungary when the lead fell to Hamilton. Rosberg’s composure had taken a beating, the reality of what had happened in such a short time had sunk in and he appeared somewhat shellshocked. Normal service has long since resumed.
He needs more than that now, with nine races remaining, and even given the engine penalty Hamilton will have to take – likely now at Spa – the usual answers have just not served. “I just want to beat him in as many races as possible and then we will see where we are,” Rosberg told ESPN.
Careful, controlled, considered – but that is not the fighting talk he needs and from which evidence Hamilton need not fear a knockout blow.