What now for Hamilton-Rosberg after their Spanish GP meltdown?
Why the Mercedes' team-mates Barcelona crash could be the year's defining moment - and why it could be Hamilton who loses out
By Pete Gill
Last Updated: 22/05/16 10:17am
The dust had barely cleared at Turn Four before the far-reaching repercussions of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg's ruinous collision at the start of the Spanish GP were being mulled over.
"That vision of those two in the gravel trap at Turn Four will be the defining moment of this season and possibly the defining moment of where the Mercedes team heads for 2017," opined Sky F1's Martin Brundle.
A few hours later, Mercedes Toto Wolff sought to douse the fire, telling reporters "I am 100 per cent sure it's not going to influence in a negative way their relationship going forward".
Maybe, maybe not - judging by the backpage headlines of 'All-out war at Mercedes', Fleet Street are far from convinced.
So what now for Mercedes and Hamilton-Rosberg?
Mercedes have been here before, of course. 2014's defining moment was Hamilton and Rosberg's Belgian GP collision, a crash which punctured Hamilton's W05 and escalated into the year's biggest controversy after he implicitly accused Rosberg of crashing deliberately.
Wisely, Mercedes prevented Rosberg and Hamilton from speaking in public this Sunday before the team's own mid-race inquest. When they did appear in front of the media, neither driver said anything particularly incendiary. According to Hamilton, Rosberg made a "mistake" by selecting the wrong engine setting. But detailed analysis of the crash by Sky F1's Anthony Davidson had already revealed as much. For his part, Rosberg says he was "very surprised" by Hamilton's move. But compared to Spa, it was practically a 'no comment'.
In a masterclass of crisis management, Toto Wolff expertly navigated the fine line of diplomacy between his two drivers when he faced the press to present the accident as "an unfortunate racing incident triggered by various circumstances".
Clearly, lessons have been learnt from two years ago when a seething Wolff, speaking in the red-hot immediate aftermath of the race, declared his drivers' ruinous deeds as "completely unacceptable".
But in retrospect, and to appreciate what the Mercedes hierarchy might be thinking behind closed doors, Wolff's reaction in Spa two years ago makes for fascinating reading:
"It was an unacceptable risk. This is an absolutely unacceptable race for us. In lap two, our drivers crashing into each other...unbelievable. There is one rule and that is that you don't crash into each other. And it has happened not at the end of the race but on lap two. It's important there are rules and they're followed."
Before leaving Spain, Wolff vowed to continue to allow his drivers race each other. But with 16 Grands Prix still to run in 2016, Hamilton and Rosberg must know there can be no more repeats of their Barcelona meltdown.
How will Mercedes react now?
In one important respect, Barcelona 2016 should be easier to defuse than Spa 2014. Unlike two years ago, when Hamilton DNF'd and Rosberg proceeded to increase his title lead by finishing second, both drivers suffered equally this Sunday. And while Rosberg was perhaps fortunate to avoid official sanction for failing to leave Hamilton a full car's width after leaving the racing line, there were degrees of culpability on both sides of the garage. "It was an incident that could have been avoided from both sides," noted Wolff.
But one critical reason why Spa 2014 was defused was Rosberg's obvious culpability. Mercedes's headache now is that neither driver believes he did anything wrong in Spain - and both appear to believe they were hard done-by. The upshot is that resentment is likely to fester on both sides.
The prospect of a repeat incident this season must be considered high. Even those mean streets of Monaco next week may not be wide enough for the pair of them.
Will Hamilton or Rosberg lose out?
In any sporting battle, the status quo always favours the man in front. While Rosberg's world championship lead was trimmed to 39 points by Kimi Raikkonen on Sunday, the more salient statistic is that he remained 43 points clear of Hamilton with one fewer race left to run. The 'mountain' Hamilton spoke of needing to climb on Thursday in Spain has become steeper still.
Whether or not the championship battle dynamic played a part in Sunday's accident is impossible to know but fascinating to speculate upon. Would both Hamilton and Rosberg have driven differently into Turn Four on Sunday had this been the first race of the season? Hamilton's aggression could easily be interpreted as that of a driver who knew he was one defeat away from losing the war. And would Rosberg have been quite so robust if he didn't have a title sizeable title advantage to protect?
There appears to have been a critical shift in Rosberg's psychology this year. As Martin Brundle has observed in his post-race column: "While Lewis couldn't afford not to win, the old Nico Rosberg could afford to finish second, but the new Nico clearly doesn't think like that anymore."
Rosberg has previously been accused of being too soft. Whatever sense of grievance he might have held over the incident, Hamilton would have departed Barcelona in no doubts that his team-mate will no longer accept being a push-over.
An acrimonious public fall-out might have been avoided this weekend, but the story is far from over yet.
The stewards' full verdict on the Lewis-Nico collision
'The incident concerned started when Car 6 [Rosberg] dropped into an incorrect power mode, as set by the driver prior to the start. This created a significant power differential between Car 6 and Car 44 [Hamilton] at the exit of Turn 3 coming onto the straight, resulting in as much as a 17kph speed difference between the two cars on the straight. Car 6 moved to the right to defend his position, as is his right under Art 27.7 of the Sporting regulations.
'Simultaneously Car 44 as the significantly faster car with, at that time, apparent space on the inside, moved to make the pass. Art 27.7 requires the leading driver to leave room, if there is a "significant portion" of the car attempting to pass alongside.
'Car 44 had a portion of his front wing inside Car 6 small fractions of a second prior to Car 44 having to leave the right side of the track to avoid an initial collision, which may have led him to believe he had the right to space on the right. Once on the grass on the side of the track Car 44 was no longer in control of the situation.
'Having heard extensively from both drivers and from the team, the Stewards determined that Car 6 had the right to make the maneuver that he did and that Car 44's attempt to overtake was reasonable, and that the convergence of events led neither driver to be wholly or predominantly at fault, and therefore take no further action.'
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