On Sunday, Nico Rosberg became the third winner from three races this season and the 103rd driver to win a Formula One World Championship race. The win finally came on his 111th attempt, the first victory for the modern Mercedes AMG Petronus team, coming 111 years after Mercedes won their first Grand Prix and 57 years since their last. Nico was also the third driver to have won a Grand Prix whose father had also won, Keke Rosberg having been the first Finnish world champion in 1982 (the only other Finnish one was Mika Hakkinen in 1998 and 1999). Rosberg is also the first driver whose dad won a race to have their father alive at the time of doing so – Damon Hill’s father Graham and Jaques Villeneuve’s father Gilles were both sadly deceased when they started winning en route to the 1996 and 1997 world championship titles respectively.
Such statistics are all well and good but what really matters for Formula One as a sport right now is we have a new winner on our hands. The introduction of Pirelli tyres, Drag Reduction Systems (DRS) and re-introduction of Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) in 2011 have all spiced up the action, but for the contemporary healthiness of the sport it is fantastic to have a new face on the top step of the podium. The next question is whether now, having got the proverbial monkey off his back, Nico can start winning on a regular basis.
I mentioned that Nico is Grand Prix winner number 103 in the all-time record books. It has been a couple of years now since numbers 100 to 102: Heikki Kovaleinen for Mclaren at Hungary 2008, Sebastien Vettel for Toro Rosso at Italy 2008 and Mark Webber for Red Bull at Germany 2009. Since then, the sport has been dominated by five drivers, two of which are listed above. Now that Nico has joined them as a winner this decade, perhaps he will follow the likes of Vettel and Webber and start consistently challenging for glory. Or perhaps he will do a Kovaleinen and fade never to win again. Doubts had been cast over Rosberg’s ability to deal with pressure since his debut in Bahrain 2006, but after his performance in Shanghai it is hard to imagine him doing a Heikki. Maybe Mercedes can even give him the pace to challenge for a first world championship this year – then we would really see how he copes when the pressure is on. But to do so, he would have to out-perform Formula One’s famous five winners, who until Sunday had between them won every single race this decade.
The Pirelli tyres and overtaking aids may have come on board in 2011, but in terms of team and driver line-ups, the sport has remained pretty steady since 2010, particularly at the front end of the grid. The intra-team battles have been locked since after the unique 2009 season, where the Brawn GP team fleetingly existed to achieve the best starts to wins ratio of any team ever as Jenson Button won his first and, to-date, only championship. Button jumped ship to Mclaren in 2010 to join Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso moved from Renault to join Felipe Massa at Ferrari and Sebastien Vettel and Mark Webber remained at Red Bull. That is all still the case today, although there are growing rumours that Massa will soon be dropped by Ferrari after a run of poor form, perhaps to be replaced by Malaysian Grand Prix superstar Sergio Perez. Massa has not won a single race since Alonso joined the team and has looked like the number two driver at Ferrari for over two years now.
So the big five who have dominated this decade are Alonso, Hamilton, Button, Vettel and Webber. One man, of course, has dominated more than any other. Sebastien Vettel has won both of the last two world championships and crushed the opposition in 2011. As a result, he enjoys a clear lead in the “wins so far this decade” table at 16, with Alonso now second on seven, the McLaren duo tied on six, Webber on five and Rosberg now on one.
It will be interesting to see how Vettel fairs this year in a car which thus far has certainly not been the class of the field he has become used to. We have had close seasons lately but the gap between the front and the back is super tight this year and as a result it is even more of a challenge for the likes of Sebastien to overcome even a small performance deficit. His performance over the last two seasons has been phenomenal but 2012 is perhaps the challenge that will reveal just how great a driver he really is. Having said that, the way he dragged his Toro Rosso onto pole and subsequently his aforementioned maiden victory at a soggy Monza four years ago showed his class even in a car which is not the best on the grid. Additionally, McLaren believe they had the faster car for the last quarter of the 2011 season and that Sebastien was simply outdriving the car to victory. His China showing was far from scruffy and his ability to deal with a lack of car advantage will be one of many thrilling sub-plots this year.
Hamilton and Button have both been capable of pulling out sensational wins lately and as Jenson’s team radio on Sunday proved (“you need to clear the car ahead, Hamilton is catching you”) – these guys are allowed to race, which is brilliant in an age where team orders are now allowed again. Alonso’s surprise win in Sepang showed that if anyone can extract speed out of a car that isn’t really there, it’s the 2005 and 2006 champion. Webber needs a result, but looks strong this season and so far seems at times maybe even quicker than Sebastien. The Australian has also won more recently than his team mate, or Hamilton for that matter, claiming victory at 2011’s season-closing Brazilian Grand Prix.
There is no doubting that the current crop of drivers is one of the greatest of all time and that, combined with the Pirelli tyres, overtaking aides and incredibly close gaps between most of the teams, means we are in for a classic season hopefully. And if Rosberg carries on the class he showed on Sunday, it’s about to get even more competitive.