Paradise Lost: End of the road for Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg?
Exploring the oldest friendship and the most fraught team relationship on the current F1 grid.
Friends since they were 5 years old; growing up together on the karting circuit, they were competitors and friends. Rosberg came from F1 royalty; the son of 1982 World Champion Keke Rosberg and his German wife Sina, Nico was brought up in the mecca of Formula One – Monaco.
Rosberg recently took victory at the Mexican Grand Prix from Hamilton, with the Briton called into the pits for a last-minute tire change, in a move he and several spectators believed was the team ‘gifting’ the trophy to Rosberg following the incidents of the previous week.
The relationship between the pair has had more twists and turns than Monza, seeing several ups and downs during the course of the two being teammates.
Several have compared them to world champions and F1 legends Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, who famously never got along, especially when they were teammates – although that relationship had begun to thaw in the months leading up to Senna’s tragic death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
Both drivers have contracts that run through to 2018, so unless an escape clause is used by or for either driver, the now-visibly frosty relationship between the teammates will remain.
This year is not the first time Hamilton has had problems with his teammate. The Briton made his Formula One debut in 2007, then partnering two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso, fresh off his back-to-back championships, who had left Renault for McLaren.
Publicly, Hamilton spoke repeatedly of his admiration for the Spaniard, describing him as “one of the best drivers Formula One has ever seen.” Behind the scenes, however, it appears things were not as rosy.
Tensions between the pair ended up reaching such a high that Alonso would ask to be released from his contract at the end of the year – two years before he was due to exit the team, and although there was no major public comment from either driver, McLaren boss Ron Dennis would go on to say “Hamilton struck the first blow."
The team’s fortunes were not helped that year when ‘Spygate’ occurred, with McLaren accused, and eventually convicted, of possessing blueprints to Ferrari’s new car.
Alonso returned to his former team Renault the following year, with Heikki Kovalainen taking his place at McLaren. The Finn publicly stated he would “avoid any problems with Hamilton,” and was replaced by Briton Jenson Button the following year.
Although there were not many publicised spats between the pair, their relationship was known to be a frosty one, marked by not much warmth, and no camaraderie off the track. They were restricted to being colleagues alone, unlike several others in the sport – most notably Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber, and Alonso and his current teammate – Button – who share a love of fitness in addition to F1.
Alonso is also known to be friendly off track with Williams’ Felipe Massa.
Among currently active drivers, the otherwise reticent Kimi Raikkonen is said to be close friends with his Scuderia Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel, with the two known to be sparring partners at badminton off the track.
What is perhaps the most iconic Formula One friendship has been chronicled in an award-winning film, with the sons of James Hunt and Niki Lauda now poised to race together as well.
Vettel, for his part, said earlier in the year that he felt there was “not enough camaraderie” between drivers on the track, and that this had hampered the sport.
Hamilton and Rosberg had been the oldest friends on the grid, but with more fractures appearing in their relationship every day, will the cracks affect Mercedes, and how much?
The cracks may have widened this year, but they have been appearing publicly since the two first became teammates in 2013 after Hamilton replaced Michael Schumacher, who took his final F1 retirement in 2012.
Ahead of the 2014 German Grand Prix at the Hockenheimring, a home race for the German-born Rosberg, Hamilton took a public swipe at his teammate, saying at the British Grand Prix a fortnight prior that Rosberg was not truly ‘from the country.’ “To be honest, Nico has never been in Germany, so he’s not really German,” the now 3-time world champion had then told The Guardian.
At the same press conference, Hamilton also implied that Rosberg did not work as hard at Formula One and was not as ambitious as himself due to being born into “F1 royalty.”
Rosberg was brought up largely in Monaco, where most Formula One drivers – now, ironically, Hamilton included, reside, and Stevenage-born Hamilton said that Rosberg did not possess the "hunger” that he did.
At the end of 2014 and the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the last for the season, the tension between the pair was open to see at the drivers’ conference:
When asked by a reporter about their relationship, Hamilton hedged questions completely, while a blunt Rosberg simply said Hamilton “could do something to make the race cleaner, which is drive cleanly himself.”
This is a complaint that seems to have persisted for Rosberg through this season, most recently at the Circuit of the Americas when he accused his teammate of running him wide off the track to take the lead (Rosberg had then been in pole) and win the race, also alleging that a ‘gust of wind’ had cost him what was otherwise a sure victory.
Brushing the accusations aside, Hamilton, in his form of ‘congratulations’ to his teammate for his victory at Mexico, said he was “glad there was no gust of wind” to impede the German's progress this race.
Hamilton has now alleged that Mercedes are attempting to repeatedly placate Rosberg, going so far as to say that his victory at Mexico had been a ‘gift’ from team boss Toto Wolff, who called Hamilton into the pits for a tyre change with only a few laps remaining in the race. According to the Briton, this was a strategic move ‘so Nico could win.’
Although Hamilton had won the championship one race prior, this did not appear to have dimmed his enthusiasm for another race win; the Briton was asked to pit after taking the lead from Rosberg in lap 46 when the German driver pitted for a tyre change, and answered to the calls of ‘box box box’ with “May I ask why?”
It took another two tries and Mercedes engineer Peter Bonnington to repeatedly tell Hamilton he was worried about tyre wear that the Briton, who responded asking Bonnington to “check Nico’s tyre’s, mine are fine.”
Bonnington finally convinced Hamilton to change tyres, but the world champion was already convinced the team had taken decisions in his dissatisfied teammate's favour in an attempt to pacify him.
That decision, especially in consideration of the fraught relationship between the teammates, could come back to haunt Mercedes in the future. It now remains to be seen what is in store for the team in 2016, although for now it seems as though the tensions within the team, in addition to a promise by Ferrari to have “more competitive engines" next season, could spell disaster for the team – which, it is now alleged, non-executive chairman Niki Lauda also intends to leave.