This was Nico Rosberg’s race. The Mercedes driver produced a flawless performance to beat team-mate Lewis Hamilton into second place and close the championship gap on the Englishman to just 10 points. Even though Rosberg had not started from pole position, the key to his third win of the season was beating Hamilton into the first corner and staying calm for the next 90 minutes – just as he had done after disappointment during a bizarre qualifying session the previous day.
Having been faster than Hamilton in two of the three free practice sessions, Rosberg was reasonably confident of winning his second pole of the season despite Hamilton being quicker on the first of two flying qualifying laps. Pole seemed a cast-iron certainty for Rosberg when Hamilton then spun on the approach to the first corner of his final lap. It was a sign of the circuit’s low grip after overnight rain and just how hard these two were pushing despite appearing to make it look easy.
Seeing his team-mate’s demise, Rosberg knew this was his chance and set the fastest time of all through the middle sector. Then he put a rear wheel across the kerb and onto the still-wet Astroturf on the outside of the final corner.
As he climbed from the car and smacked his thigh, there was no need to ask how Rosberg felt about tossing away such a golden opportunity. With the Mercedes pair so close and under no immediate threat from Ferrari (Sebastian Vettel) and Williams (Felipe Massa) on the second row, Rosberg needed any advantage he could get when dealing with someone as quick as his team-mate.
Race craft would now be everything. In previous years, this has not been Rosberg’s strong suite. But, in 2015, he has been working on this weakness by examining every detail of his race – beginning with the opening seconds. As the red lights went out, Hamilton suffered a minor glitch in the software. “I let the clutch out and it underperformed,” he said.
It was the tiny chink Rosberg needed as he drew alongside, refused to be intimidated by Hamilton moving across, Rosberg then emerging in front at the exit of the first corner. Realising the seriousness of the situation, Hamilton was immediately on the attack, Rosberg defending through the second corner. Any thoughts Hamilton may have had about continuing the challenge were cancelled by the sudden appearance of the Safety Car.
Leaving the second corner, Kimi Raikkonen (on the harder of the two tyres), had got himself into a tank-slapper and eventually speared off to the left, taking Fernando Alonso with him, the McLaren-Honda riding on top of the Ferrari, fortunately without injury to either driver.
When the race got under way again six laps later, Rosberg was immediately on the pace and pulling away. By the tenth lap, he was 2.3 seconds ahead, knowing he would have first call for the one and only pit stop just before half distance. It came and went without incident – for Rosberg at least.
Hamilton’s slim chance of getting on terms was ruined when the reigning champion put two wheels across the white line designating the pit lane exit. The subsequent five-second penalty to be added to his race time meant that, even in the unlikely event of getting ahead of Rosberg, he would need to be five seconds clear at the finish.
Hamilton was not alone in having a problematic pit stop. After being fastest in the third free practice session, it was hoped Vettel would offer a challenge to Mercedes. It never looked on as Rosberg and Hamilton pulled out 10 seconds on the Ferrari before the pit stops – and even less likely when a problem with a rear wheel nut dropped Vettel to fourth behind Massa. Vettel gradually reeled in the Williams but stout defending, plus the superior power of the Mercedes engine, allowed Massa to give Williams-Mercedes their second podium of the season.
This was the eighth visit to the rostrum for each of the Mercedes drivers. Of the two, Rosberg looked by far the happiest – as well he might after a faultless afternoon. Bit by bit, he has clawed back Hamilton’s advantage.