LONDON (Reuters) - Nico Rosberg may not have lost the plot, as some suggested in the wake of his outburst against Mercedes team mate Lewis Hamilton at Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix, but he is feeling the heat.
The German’s accusation that the world champion had been selfishly slow as he cruised to a pole-to-flag victory in Shanghai spoke more of mounting frustration than any real grievance.
Hamilton has won eight of the last 10 races and Rosberg, last year’s runner-up in a title battle that went down to the wire, has been unable to assert himself in qualifying either this year.
With Ferrari looking far more competitive, and Sebastian Vettel second in the championship after winning in Malaysia, Rosberg is facing pressure from more than just his team mate.
The mental cracks are starting to show and the next race in Bahrain saw fireworks last year as Hamilton won a wheel-to-wheel duel between the two.
Rosberg knows he needs to step up in Sakhir.
“Nico is just shooting himself in the foot by showing the world he’s upset, as if the world can do something about it,” commented 1996 world champion Damon Hill. “We can’t do anything about it.
“Nico has to outqualify Lewis, he has to take the fight and take the high ground and then maybe he’s got a case to argue,” added the Briton.
Niki Lauda, the Austrian who won three titles and is now non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team, put it typically bluntly on Sunday.
“Sure, everyone drives selfish,” he said. “What do you think these guys are here to do? I call them egocentric bastards. That is the only way to win and the only way to win the championship.”
Hamilton, who set the fastest lap of the race, made the perfectly valid point that “it’s not my job to look after Nico’s race” and that he needed to make his tires last.
He would not be the first driver to dictate the pace to suit himself — compatriot and triple champion Jackie Stewart was a master at winning at the slowest possible speed.
Such tactics are part of every great driver’s armory.
As Stewart observed in his autobiography “Winning is not enough”: “Sometimes the best way to raise your level of performance is to back off rather than push even harder.”
Martin Brundle, the Sky television commentator who competed in 158 races and was team mate to Michael Schumacher in 1992, had no doubts who was in the right.
“Lewis is leading the race. I think he’s entitled to do what he likes. If you want to change that, get in front of him,” declared the Briton.
“He was just controlling the race...he’s got the high ground, he’s got track position.”
Rosberg’s call for Hamilton to speed up might have seemed surprising, given that slower drivers would appear easier to catch and pass, but there was a logic to it — even if an equally selfish one.
“Why didn’t I attack? I can understand why you are asking that because it’s maybe not so easy to understand from outside,” he said on Sunday evening in a video blog.
“The reason is, I did try to attack him during the first stint and it just didn’t work. All I did was destroy my tires.
“So in the second stint there was no point doing that again because Vettel was right behind and it would have really risked my second place if I had tried that as I would have just ruined my tires completely again.”
Had Hamilton gone faster, it might also given Rosberg more of a chance of beating him.
The drivers and team met after the race for what Rosberg described as “constructive criticism” and agreed to move on.
In the end, Hamilton was faster in practice, qualifying and the race. And Rosberg has to do a better job.
“The worst part of the weekend was losing out to Lewis in qualifying, that compromised me the most,” he said. “It’s all down to me to be five-hundredths quicker next time.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Martyn Herman