Nico Rosberg believes former rival Lewis Hamilton may find it “difficult to keep his motivation up” this season and has accused Mercedes of not telling the “truth” to protect their driver after another dismal weekend.
Rosberg, Hamilton’s team-mate at Mercedes from 2013 to 2016 before he bowed out of the sport after beating the Englishman to the world championship, was part of the Sky Sports F1 punditry team over the Emilia Romagna GP, where Hamilton’s season hit a new low.
Having his say on Hamilton’s woes, “rising tension” at Mercedes and George Russell’s contrastingly encouraging start, Rosberg did not hold back with his unique insight and analysis into an F1 2022 crisis…
Rosberg on Hamilton’s mindset and ‘rising tension’ at Mercedes
Hamilton had a nightmare Imola weekend, finishing 12th in Saturday’s Sprint and 13th in Sunday’s race, where he was also lapped by Max Verstappen. Mercedes’ failure to make strides with their underperforming car has led to Hamilton already ruling out their title prospects this season, and after eight seasons fighting at the front Rosberg believes the drop in performance is affecting Hamilton and the team.
“It’s definitely a very, very tough situation for Lewis,” said Rosberg.
“He’s won a race in every single year of his career and it looks like this might be the year where he can’t win any more.
“You can see how the tension is rising. We saw how Toto, in my view, was angry at Lewis [after qualifying], because maybe Lewis criticised the team a little bit too harshly over the team internal radio about something they did.
“The tension’s rising, and that’s natural, and Lewis will obviously start to show those emotions a little bit. Nevertheless, with the experience he has, I think he will eventually manage to keep those under control.”
Hamilton was understandably frustrated after Sunday’s race, where he reiterated his championship hopes were over. Hamilton has also faced questions about his F1 future – which he has batted off – and Rosberg pinpointed a source of motivation for the 37-year-old.
“That was tough to see Lewis in that state, he’s really down which is understandable,” stated the Sky F1 expert. “It is a long season but they’re nowhere with that car; they’re not even going to be able to fight for race wins any time soon.
“So, it’s difficult for Lewis to keep his motivation up.
“I think he will manage because he really is a fighter and remember there’s always that thing that he still wants to beat his team-mate. That’s really, really important to him. With George performing so well, that could be the biggest motivator for Lewis to just keep going and keep fighting.”
Wolff ‘not telling the truth’ to protect Hamilton
After the race, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff apologised to Hamilton and said the team’s car was “not good enough” for a world champion. But Rosberg believes he twisting the truth to protect his star driver, given team-mate Russell finished fourth and nine places higher in the same car.
“Here, Toto was playing the mental game which is very smart on his behalf again,” said Rosberg. “Taking the blame themselves and really trying to support Lewis mentally. Lifting him up and saying that it wasn’t Lewis’ doing, it’s on us.
“It’s very smart because it’s not quite the truth and let’s not forget that Russell is in P4 with that same car, so Lewis definitely had a big role to play in that poor result this weekend.
“Russell got P4 out of it with a brilliant weekend, so there was more in that car. Really, Toto is trying to lift him [Hamilton] up.
“It’s so important that Lewis keeps that motivation through the whole season, it’s important for the team and it’s quite easy for Lewis to lose it in these kind of situations.
“Let’s not forget also, Lewis hates ending up behind his team-mate. Even if you’re down the order, he really, really passionately hates coming in behind his team-mate, that also happened this weekend, so that’s also going to put the tension up a lot. Especially in the engineering room where Lewis is going to be pushing harder and harder, so it will be interesting to see how it unfolds.”
Russell brushing off ‘big setback’ with ‘championship level driving’
This isn’t the rookie Mercedes season Russell would have been expecting given their record title streak, but Rosberg believes the young Briton is handling at well – particularly in Imola with his first “dominant” weekend.
“For George it will be a big disappointment because he was going into the season thinking that he was going to be able to compete for race wins, maybe even a championship, so this is a big setback for him,” the German stated.
“Nevertheless he’s still very young and for him there’s still this giant opportunity to beat, with the same car, the best of all time – it doesn’t matter where they are in the end.
“And that is so important for George, to be very close to Lewis, to beat him as much possible, because it will really dictate how the rest of his career will go, if Mercedes keep him and things like that.
“You have to say that he has done so brilliantly throughout the weekend at Imola, which is the first time this year that he’s really been dominating Lewis. We’re really overlooking that because of where they are, but we need to see that he’s been like four-tenths quicker than Lewis all weekend, and ahead of him all weekend, which is really an awesome job by George.
“It’s the first time we’re really seeing a potential world championship level of driving from him.”
Mercedes made right ‘risky’ choice to sign Russell
Rosberg also believes Russell is proving Mercedes made the right decision in replacing the proven commodity in Valtteri Bottas, with Russell not only quick on the track but also ensuring a harmonious relationship with Hamilton off it.
“It was very risky to replace Bottas with George, because he was such an unknown,” said Rosberg. “But we can say now already that it was a brilliant choice.
“George has been so mature, delivered the maximum points possible with this car. So it’s been a great choice for Mercedes.
“I think Toto has learned so much as well from the fight Lewis and I had, and manging us, and that’s helping him now in managing George coming into the team.
“It’s very difficult, you don’t want to cut his wings completely, but you do want to tell him, ‘don’t crash into Lewis.’
“So it’s a very fine line but I think Toto is getting that right brilliantly at the moment.”
Reflecting on Hamilton rivalry | ‘I don’t have regrets’
Rosberg then expanded on his and Hamilton’s rivalry, which grew over four seasons and eventually ignited during an extremely tense and controversial 2016 campaign, after which Rosberg left the sport completely.
Reflecting on the drama and the several clashes on and off the track, Rosberg said: “We made it extremely difficult.
“It went to the point that we had a code of conduct on paper, what we were allowed to do in a wheel-to-wheel battle, even penalties with a lot zeros on them attached to that, because there was no other way, it just got too heated and too extreme.
“[Hamilton and Russell] are not on that at the moment, it’s much more easy going I think. It is less heated when you’re racing for 11th and 13th place rather than first or second all the time when you’re fighting for a championship, so that’s definitely going to make the situation internally, in terms of the battle between the drivers, easier to manage.”
Rosberg continued: “I don’t have regrets.
“Of course there were some very difficult situations but everything culminated in winning the championship. Especially against someone as great as Lewis, it’s important for George as well to show that he’s not just a walkover, to also get the elbows out in a measured way right from the get-go, and show Lewis, ‘you need to respect me as well.’
“That’s a very important sign for George to get going right in the beginning in this relationship because it sets precedent. It’s such a fine line how far do you push that, so it’s going to be good to see how George manages that in the next couple of races, especially against Lewis once they start going wheel-to-wheel at some point.”