How Nico Rosberg has put the brakes on Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes in 2013 - so far
Sky Sports F1's Mark Hughes examines why the 2008 World Champion is still struggling to adjust to his new home...
Last Updated: 03/06/13 12:20pm
"I fully expected Nico to be this fast," said Lewis Hamilton after the Monaco Grand Prix. "I just didn't think I'd be this slow."
Encapsulated in that comment is his bewilderment at being consistently out-performed by a team-mate for arguably the first time since he first stepped into a racing kart as a kid. Although Rosberg's third consecutive pole position only evened the score at three-all between them this year, the underlying pattern has been in Rosberg's favour most of the season. Only circumstances gave Hamilton the initial advantage thanks largely to his great improvisational ability in changing conditions. In normal running, Rosberg has had a better combination of pace and tyre management than Hamilton ever since winter testing began.
"My problems have been there since the first race," admits Lewis. "Even in winter testing I was struggling, particularly with the brakes. The set-up on the car in terms of brake cylinders and steering wheel functions is a lot different to what I had [at McLaren] where I'd been for years and where it was always the same.
"That's been a weakness for me so far this year - even in the first few races, but particularly in the last three where I've been pretty poor. This weekend was very tough for me."
It's interesting that Hamilton identifies braking as a key part of his struggle. Just as at McLaren he has a preference for Carbone Industrie brake discs rather than the Brembos used by Rosberg in conjunction with the Brembo calipers that are a standard part of both Mercedes. Hamilton's braking style is very aggressive - which has been a core part of his skill ever since his junior days. Here's what his Formula Renault and F3 entrant John Booth said about this: "He is fantastic at using the full power of the brakes from high speed, but then modulating the pressure as the downforce comes off as the car slows - and that's absolutely the key to getting the best from a high downforce car."
Hamilton prefers the combination of stopping power and pedal feel of the Carbone Industrie discs over those of the more common Brembos. The Brembos are said to give more feedback through the pedal, allowing easier modulation. But Lewis found at McLaren that with the right size and design of brake master cylinder, he could get the modulation he needs together with the higher braking power of the Carbone Industrie discs. He has been struggling to get that same combination at Mercedes. Since the start of the season the team has been trying to give him that elusive combination with redesigns of the brake cylinders, but to date it has not worked for him. Rosberg has remained on the standard Brembo caliper/Brembo disc combination and is quite happy with it.
Normally, higher braking power would generate more heat - and that has been the pattern in the Hamilton/Rosberg comparison at most tracks. That heat tends to transfer itself through the wheel rims to the tyres and at tracks where thermal degradation of the front tyre is the generic limitation, this would give Hamilton higher tyre deg than Rosberg.
But at Monaco, where any error under braking is going to put you in the barriers, it was not excessive heat that Hamilton was suffering with - but the very reverse. "I just could not get my front tyres switched on all through practice and into qualifying. That's the first time I've ever experienced that. The only time my front tyres switched on was in the second and third sectors of my final lap in Q3."
In both these sectors he was actually faster than Rosberg, but not by enough to overcome the deficit he had incurred in the first sector where his cold tyres gave him a lack of front grip.
Getting the front tyres up to temperature was the key struggle for almost everyone in Monaco qualifying, but it's not a problem normally associated with the Mercedes and indeed Rosberg did not suffer it. So how come Hamilton's more aggressive braking did not generate more heat, not less, at Monaco?
Because, by his own admission, his braking was not more aggressive. "I lacked confidence to brake late enough. It's nothing really to do with the engineers, it's just to do with a feeling with me. It's difficult really to explain but I've just not been on it all weekend. It's not through not being focussed or centred, but just being comfortable in the car. Here you need 100% confidence and I always had that in the past. But not this weekend."
It's a complex chicken-and-egg situation: don't get the brake heat and the tyre doesn't get hot enough, then it has no grip so you can't brake late enough. Conversely, get the tyre temps and the braking is better, the brakes get hotter etc. The trick is to get that process to a state of equilibrium where the braking heat is helping the tyre to remain at the optimum temperature.
But that was a specific Monaco problem for Lewis, and simply the way his wider problem with the brake feel played out around the specific circumstances of that track on that weekend. At other places that problem has played out in different ways. But the ultimate outcome is the same: he isn't as quick as he would be if he was comfortable with the brake feel.
It all emphasises that the complex driving demands of racing on the delicate Pirelli rubber is something at which Rosberg is more adept. Whenever the challenge becomes about improvisation - as in qualifying at Melbourne and Malaysia - Lewis is quicker. But in more stable conditions, Rosberg is currently getting more from the car.
There's a hint of Rosberg's more cerebral approach when he explains what his problem was in China, where Hamilton set pole. "My car broke down end of P3, so I didn't have a practice qualifying run which for me is always very important."
His use of the words 'for me' suggests the meticulous way he puts together his weekend, building the pieces of the jigsaw to produce the perfect lap at the crucial time. Hamilton's approach is more visceral, in that he attacks and then tries to interpret what he's just felt to the engineers, trying to get the car to the point where his improvisational skills automatically produce the lap time.
With the Mercedes, he has not got there yet. But he almost certainly will, in time.
The competition between the two is fascinating, but even Rosberg is not expecting things to always be going his way. "To beat Lewis you have to have everything perfect. If it's not, you won't beat him."