The 2017 Formula 1 World Drivers' Championship once contained a lot of promise; just a couple months ago we fans were staring down the barrel of a loaded title scrap. There were reasons for hope for the Tifosi, but also for Lewis's fans.
Fairer on-track battles were developing at a wider rate than they had in any part of the hybrid V6 era, and while the focus may have been on the top two guys, wins were now a toss-up between several drivers from three different teams.
F1 hadn't seen this breadth of fantasy choices in several years, but that was before the bottom went bombing out of the fight.
Under Lewis's skin
Starting in Singapore, or even Azerbaijan, on through Malaysia and Japan, the wheels literally came off of Sebastian Vettel's title chances. The causes, like the aforementioned origins, all depend on who you ask: Vettel made several amateur mistakes; Ferrari's reliability took a hit; and a resurgent Hamilton found his groove.
All were factors, but there is a big one missing that gets little mention. One I would argue had a greater impact than all those other things: Nico Rosberg walking away from Formula 1 after winning the championship in 2016.
In his post-race Mexico presser, Lewis Hamilton took a cheap shot at his former teammate. It may have come from his own astronomical level of arrogance and vanity, or may have just been insensitive and stupid. These are debatable factors.
There is, however, one iron-clad nugget of insight we can glean from him making this comment: It shows how much Nico, or losing to Nico, got into Hamilton's head. To mention the man who discovered his own racing destiny to beat him to the 2016 championship immediately after securing his own back-to-back crowns in 2014 and 2015 indicates nothing less.
A change in team dynamic
Rosberg finished last November's final round in Abu Dhabi just five points up on his Mercedes teammate. The acrimonious nature of their relationship during the time spent together at Mercedes is no secret, and the pair came together on the track more than once.
They were subject to reprimands by team boss Toto Wolff, and both occasionally used questionable racing tactics against the other. But they did so under the wings of a team that was so utterly dominant they could afford to watch their cars spin off the track together and not have it affect their title chances.
That atmosphere didn't exist this year. Some parity was found and Ferrari had the early season measure of their rivals. Red Bull started slowly but by one-third distance had used their chassis and aero superiority to take the racing to the big guys. Tellingly, 2017 will be the first year since 2014 that the Mercedes drivers (likely) won't finish in the top two spots in the drivers' championship. And it's in this detail that a measure can be found that might have robbed Lewis of title number four.
Five days after the absolute peak of his career, Rosberg abruptly walked away from the sport in order to spend more time with his family. Caught off guard, Mercedes scrambled for a replacement and, eventually, the team hired the very capable Valtteri Bottas.
But, because of the last-minute nature of Rosberg's retirement, the Finn would start this aerodynamically overhauled season on the back foot. Lacking any time behind the wheel of the W08, it would be impossible to simply walk in to the garage and pick up where Rosberg left off. I doubt anyone expected him to be able to.
There is also the possibility he is cut from a different racing calibre than the former champion he replaced. In either case, and despite a very credible effort from Bottas in 2017, it's obvious that Rosberg would have achieved more.
Rosberg's consistent improvement
Looking at the results Rosberg posted versus Hamilton (excluding retirements) during their time as Mercedes teammates, a crucial pattern emerges. Though Hamilton certainly started off with the full measure of his teammate, Rosberg closed that gap each season and got better, rapidly.
In 2014, he directly beat Hamilton four times for 31 championship points. In 2015, it was six times for 45 points. And in 2016, Rosberg's excellent championship year, he finished ahead of Hamilton nine times for 95 points. Obviously, championships are decided by cumulative results, and those totals show Hamilton winning the war two times from three years.
But, when measuring how many points Hamilton lost to his teammate this season, this leaves the less-experienced Bottas even further adrift. Through 18 rounds this year, Bottas has beaten Hamilton five times, for 43 points. Notably, each of these occasions took place while Vettel was the championship leader, pre-Italian Grand Prix.
During Hamilton's surge to the front in the second half of the season though, Lewis was highly effective, but his teammate just could not keep up.
The reasons for this may be many: Rosberg was a better driver; Bottas is new to the team and car; Lewis has had an outstanding second half of the season etc. But they're all irrelevant. Any way you break it down, Rosberg in 2017 would have taken more points from Lewis Hamilton's total.
Considering the improving trend he was enjoying it may even be plausible to assume he would have been level with Lewis, or even ahead, at this point in the season. And this is completely ignoring the intra-team factor that seemed to be working in his favour at the Silver Arrows, where Nico has stated more than once that he was successful at getting into Lewis's head in 2016.
Could Nico have pushed Lewis harder?
One has to wonder if Hamilton's oddly timed personal break before the British Grand Prix had anything to do with clearing his head from the year before. At that point, his new teammate was only five points behind, with Hamilton himself 20 points down from Vettel.
The exact nature of that break is really only for Lewis to say, but what is irrefutable are his achievements since then: Six wins from nine races for 182 points, while Bottas tallied 120 and Vettel 100. Had Rosberg stayed on, and matched Lewis throughout the year, it would swing them both to around the 303 (total) point mark, with Vettel only 26 points behind (points totals calculated pre-Brazil). The drivers' title would still be a tantalising dogfight with all of us salivating at our television screens.
Regardless of what driver you root for, or where you live, the 2017 F1 season has been a welcome departure from the past few years. For six and a half months, fans have been glued to the edge of their seats, sometimes shouting at the little cars flying by in front of them. For me, it was Singapore. I nearly woke the wife and kids up at 3am with that start!
But I still can't shake the feeling that if Rosberg had stuck around for one more season, we would still be watching the long-promised title fight unfold.
Did Rosberg's retirement lift a monkey from Lewis Hamilton's back? Could Nico have beaten Hamilton to the 2017 title if he had stayed on? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
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