Prior to the 2016 F1 season only Juan Manuel Fangio and Lewis Hamilton had won the F1 world championship at the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix car, but Nico Rosberg added his name to that elite list, winning the championship by five points from Hamilton.
It was hard won, based on a determination to maximise every area after the humiliation of Austin 2015 and losing the title for the second year in a row. It was also a fitting reward for the work Rosberg had done for the team since 2010, helping it to build up to the dominant force in F1.
But in suddenly announcing his retirement at the end of the season, he also threw the team into a difficult position. With fierce competition expected from Red Bull and other rivals next season, Mercedes has to move forward with a new driver who must score consistently from the outset or the Constructors’ Championship will be at risk.
The hot tip is that Valtteri Bottas will get the drive, providing a more or less like-for-like replacement for Rosberg in terms of driving level and consistency at this stage of his career.
Mercedes has dominated F1 in the hybrid turbo power unit era and this was arguably the most dominant season of all – they did not lose a single race where both their cars finished and of the two race wins that escaped them one was due to a collision between drivers in Spain and the other was Malaysia, where Hamilton’s engine failed while leading and Rosberg had a spin at the start.
The car, designed under the guidance of former Ferrari designer Aldo Costa, again featured many aggressive design ideas, which pushed the rule book to the limit, showing that it wasn’t just because of the engine that the team was winning races. And they kept on bringing details to the car even relatively late in the season to keep the opposition at arm’s length.
They clearly had plenty of spare capacity to develop next year’s chassis to the dramatic new regulations.
The car’s raw pace was again the key; it took 20 pole positions from 21 races in the season, which set a new all-time record. Starting more often than not from first and second places on the grid, the Mercedes drivers were able to control and dominate the races, even when they had a slow getaway off the start line, which happened surprisingly often.
Winning in F1 is about taking care of all the tangibles on the car and in driver preparation as well as the intangibles, like competitive spirit and driver execution. To leave one of the key tangibles – the clutch at race starts – as a weakness for much of the season was strange, but it did allow some of the other teams to dream.
Daniel Ricciardo managed to split the Mercedes a few times, as did Max Verstappen while the Ferrari drivers also bagged a second place each early on.
But the championship was only ever going to be an in house Mercedes battle once again and this time Rosberg came out on top. We have written extensively on the championship outcome and the part that luck, reliability and consistency played in winning it for Rosberg and losing it for Hamilton, so there is no need to go over it again here.
Mercedes performed once again at a very high level as a team, but that’s what happens when a team has the winning bug. Race Strategy was generally well done, but again it is easier when you have a very quick car to work with. The one obvious aberration was the final round where the team management tried to intervene with team orders when Hamilton tried to back Rosberg into the pack at the end of the race.
They have since acknowledged that this was not the right thing to do and Rosberg retiring makes for a very interesting dynamic; they needed to patch things up with a disgruntled Hamilton before embarking on a new F1 season in 2017.
Hamilton had made some uncomplimentary noises during the season about reliability, aware that it was costing him in his title fight, as Rosberg got off to a commanding start. Several times he left the door open for conjecture that reliability issues only happening on his side of the garage meant that Mercedes was favouring Rosberg, without saying it.
Many of his fans were not so reticent.
With Rosberg gone, Mercedes needs Hamilton more than ever and he certainly has the upper hand for the 2017 season.
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