Issue 46: Formula 1 2015 Season Preview: Can Nico Rosberg beat Lewis Hamilton to the world title?

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8 March 2015 

It’s prediction time!

Where’s my Crystal Ball?! It worked this time last year. In Issue 2, I (cautiously) predicted that Lewis Hamilton would be the 2014 World Champion. The vital statistics of last season suggest that the Briton won with ease over team-mate Nico Rosberg with 11-5 race wins, but it was a closer run thing than that. So how should we attempt to split the Mercedes drivers this season and come-up with a likely winner?

I wish I could confidently predict that a non-Mercedes driver is also likely to contest the drivers’ title in 2015. Sadly, I can’t. The performance gap that Mercedes have created between themselves and the rest is just too great for any other driver to bridge through speed alone. Fernando Alonso and McLaren-Honda will spend most of the first half of 2015 fixing unreliability and improving the performance of the MP4-30. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari are in a state of transition. Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull lack horsepower. And I don’t expect either of the Williams drivers to beat one or both Mercedes that often. 

In short, we are staring down the barrel of a repeat of 2014. Hamilton vs Rosberg Round 2. I still find this an exciting prospect, albeit less novel than last year. Nevertheless, I would much rather watch two drivers from the same team battle it out at the front for a second year running than have to sit through mind-numbing single-driver dominated championships most recently served up by Red Bull.

However, make no mistake, Alonso, Vettel, Ricciardo, Bottas, Massa may not be championship challengers this year, but they will battle hard, put in some scintillating performances and dazzle us with their driving skills. 

But what about the dicing at the very sharp end of the grid? What factors matter in Hamilton vs. Rosberg Round 2? I divide factors likely to influence qualifying and race performances into two categories: off-track distractions and on-track performance indicators. 

Off-track distractions

Accurately weighting the significance of various off-track distractions for Hamilton and Rosberg in their 2015 title fight is hard because we really don’t know how these distractions will influence the mindset of either driver, if at all. However, we can isolate several factors that could conceivably have an impact on their on-track performance.

Personal life – Both Hamilton and Rosberg have had or will experience significant changes in their personal lives in 2015. Hamilton’s split with his girlfriend has been well-reported in the celebrity pages, but only Hamilton really knows how likely the break-up is to influence his racing. Off-track personal troubles have affected him before, most notably during the 2011 season. However, two things are different in 2015: (1) he is now in the best car and (2) he has won a second world title, so the pressure to win again is somewhat released.

Rosberg announced recently that he and his wife are expecting a baby in mid-2015. Enzo Ferrari is known to have said that when an F1 driver fathers a child he slows by a second a lap! I doubt that will happen to Rosberg, but a new baby will surely disrupt his thought processes and routine. I know from recent experience! 

Hamilton’s unresolved contract negotiations – The Briton is still in discussions with Mercedes about extending his contract with the team beyond 2015. And more to the point, Hamilton is personally conducting the negotiations having yet to appoint a new management team. Until a new contract is agreed, Hamilton will surely have this at the back of his mind during race weekends.

Both Hamilton and Rosberg are professional sportsmen. They are able to shut out external distractions through significant mental preparation. But small margins make the difference when competing at the top of elite sport and I’d be surprised if none of these distractions influenced their mindset or on-track performances in 2015. If the psychological war between the Mercedes drivers heats up in the way that it did last season, then how both men are feeling about themselves is likely to play a greater role in resisting that pressure.

It is certainly not a question of who is better motivated. The fire will burn equally fiercely on both sides of the Mercedes garage. Hamilton triumphed in 2014, but it’s obvious that he wants a third title to emulate his hero, Ayrton Senna. Rosberg just wants to be world champion as his father was in 1982.

On-track performance indicators

Car setup and suitability – Judging by their public comments during pre-season testing, both Hamilton and Rosberg  seemed happy with the W06 Hybrid. Hamilton, for example, said the new car felt like the 2014 Mercedes, only better. I read very little into the fact that Rosberg set a quicker lap than Hamilton at the final pre-season test. However, what does strike me as significant for the opening races at least is that Rosberg managed to complete 600 miles more than Hamilton during testing. That’s the equivalent of three race distances! It would be surprising if Rosberg had not gleaned a more detailed understanding of his Mercedes, especially when it comes to setting up his car for longer-runs. That said, Hamilton and Rosberg complained about the Mercedes lacking rear grip at the final pre-season test. Rosberg said he was “chasing” oversteer all day. If the W06 Hybrid is a touch oversteery expect Hamilton to benefit because Rosberg is not as comfortable with the rear of his car sliding around. 

The departure of Hamilton’s performance engineer – Another factor likely to influence car setup advantage is the departure of Jock Clear to Ferrari. Clear is a highly experienced engineer and his move to Ferrari will deprive Hamilton of a crucial link between his feedback on car handling and set-up and the technical telemetry data. Until his new performance engineer gets up to speed, correlating Hamilton’s feedback and the technical data is likely to be less seamless than in 2014. Hamilton is likely to have to work a bit harder to find his car’s sweet spot.

Tyre compound advantages – We can split the two title contenders on tyres too. An analysis of Hamilton and Rosberg’s qualifying and race results in 2014 indicates that Rosberg tended to have a slight performance advantage on the softer tyre compounds. As the chart below shows, when Pirelli brought its Supersoft/Soft compounds to a Grand Prix, Rosberg out-qualified Hamilton 5-1 and outraced him 3-1, counting only dry sessions and races in which both Mercedes drivers finished. Why is this? Softer tyre compounds offer comparatively more rear grip, so the problem of rear-end instability and oversteer diminishes. Hamilton is well-known for his ability to contend with and even flourish when driving a car with less rear grip and more oversteer, which is likely to be partly the reason why he shaded Rosberg 3-2 in qualifying and outraced him 3-1 when the Medium/Hard compounds were used.

Number of times Rosberg/Hamilton out-qualified or out-raced each other in 2014

NR-LH Tyre comparison (notes)    

Of course in the complex world of F1, qualifying and race success or failure is never down to one factor. However, the tyres are the only part of the car in contact with the track, so they are a significant performance variable.

Whether the trend in 2014 will continue into 2015 is another story. Pirelli has made changes to its rear tyres for this season, so only time will tell. However, until there is more relevant data, a good baseline assumption is that the battle between Rosberg and Hamilton is likely to marginally favour Rosberg when the softest tyre compounds are in play.

Learning to out-race Hamilton – However, in my view, the kicker this season will be whether Rosberg has learnt to  out-race Hamilton. In 2014, Rosberg converted only three of his 11 pole positions into wins (Hamilton converted six of his seven poles), while Rosberg failed to overtake Hamilton all season, but his rival passed him seven times during races. If Rosberg is to win the world championship he simply has to have learnt how to defend a lead from Hamilton and worked-out how to overtake him. Yes, Rosberg fended off Hamilton in Monaco, Austria and Brazil, but none of these circuits offer good overtaking opportunities when your main rival behind you is driving the same car. Securing track position in qualifying and/or finding a better car set-up than Hamilton, as Rosberg often did last year, was not enough to win over a season. However, when Hamilton gained track position over Rosberg in 2014, it was effectively race over as Rosberg never found a way past.

Rosberg will surely have done plenty of performance analysis over the winter looking for those edges in the race while maintain his advantage in qualifying. However, a driver changing his racecraft is a tough undertaking, not least inside a few winter months. For this reason, I forecast that Hamilton will be 2015 world champion.

Swing Factors

My prediction carries a big caveat though: Wildcards – or Swing Factors – are likely to have a disproportionately large influence on the eventual result. Luck, coincidence, timing and the unexpected can and often do strongly influence outcomes. Quantifying the likelihood of these Swing Factors coming into play is tough. But, over the course of a season, it is likely that one or more of the following will influence the title battle:

1. The number/timing of reliability issues. While the W06 Hybrid is likely to be more reliable than its predecessor, the 2015 Mercedes experienced Energy Recovery System failures in testing. Any technical failures will play a crucial role in the championship. A failure to finish will be expensive for one Mercedes driver because their chief rival will almost certainly collect 25 points for a win. Early season failures are preferable because there is time for the affected driver to make up a points deficit, as Hamilton did in 2014.

2. Mercedes’ reaction to on-track controversy. It’s almost certain that the Mercedes drivers will find themselves in closely fought battles at the front of the field again this season. This increases the chances of another ‘Spa’ moment: a miscalculated overtake, unintended collision or some other controversy. How the Mercedes management decides to deal with any on-track entanglements involving their drivers is likely to affect the title fight, as happened in 2014. After the Belgian Grand Prix and Rosberg’s public spanking by Mercedes, Hamilton gained a psychological edge and translated it into a race wins.

3. The imposition of team orders by Mercedes. Like every F1 team, Mercedes cares most about winning the constructors’ championship. In 2014, they had the luxury of being able to let their drivers fight openly at the front, safe in the knowledge that they would finish 1-2. This is likely to be the case in 2015 such is Mercedes’ probable car advantage. I can only see Mercedes imposing team orders if they are in danger of losing a 1-2 finish by letting their drivers squabble or if one or more teams significantly close the performance gap to Mercedes later in the season. Team orders are always controversial , but if applied in 2015, one Mercedes driver will lose the opportunity to close down his rival’s points advantage or extend his own championship lead. Fireworks will then ensue.

One thing’s for sure, it will be a great fight!

Read my Australian Grand Prix Forecast in a few days’ time. 

 @TheWheelspinner

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