It says something about the importance of context. On the face of it, little changed between this Italian race and that in Belgium a week ago. Nico Rosberg won both, and did so by getting out front at the start and stroking it home in that imperious way he does. But the feeling around could hardly be more different.
Then in Belgium it seemed still that Nico’s team mate and chief rival Lewis Hamilton had effected a save, as laden with grid penalties he nevertheless finished third to minimise the points damage. This time – even though Lewis finished up a place higher than he did last week – no one could deny that Nico had effected the strike.
Mercedes steps through the looking glass
Echoes of previous races seemed everywhere in this one, and not merely because the Mercedes for hardly the first occasion were on another level to all opponents. The race was a lot like that in Germany a few weeks back, only in reverse. Then Rosberg had dominated for much of the weekend and taken a fine pole position, but matters changed in the first split second of the race as he fluffed his start and lost several places. It opened the way for Hamilton cruise to victory. This time, swap the names around and that’s pretty much exactly what we got again.
Not that it was anticipated. For much of the weekend Lewis was a large stride beyond even his team mate. Gleefully throwing his car around Monza’s chicanes and stretching his pace advantage ever wider almost lap by lap. In qualifying Lewis stunned, his best effort a full half second quicker than that of his Merc stable mate.
But still the avenue via which Nico could prevail was foreseen. The run to turn one at Monza is a very long one which punishes poor race starts; the Merc’s launches have been poor on occasion (for both drivers) in 2016 due to an ‘inconsistent’ clutch; Lewis himself noted even amid his qualifying afterglow that if he did get a poor start and lose places overtaking ain’t easy here, that you need around a second per lap advantage to be able to pass. And in the event it all happened.
The start defines the end
Nico led at the first turn, Lewis sank to sixth and Nico indeed admitted afterwards that much of the battle was won in that moment. Lewis cleared Daniel Ricciardo quickly but then spent a whole ten laps behind Valtteri Bottas, it hardly helping that the Finn’s Williams was one of the quickest on the straights. By the time he was through Nico was 12 seconds up the road and the day was done.
Both drivers agreed on as much afterwards, but differed on the reasons for it. Nico said that despite the mammoth gap to Lewis in qualifying he was confident he could match him on race pace. Lewis said it was yet another manifestation of the sport’s delicate Pirelli tyres – that had he pushed to the extent needed to chase Nico down his grip would have run out long before the end.
Lewis did manage to clear the two Ferraris – who pitted twice to Lewis’s once – to bag second but he never looked likely to get with Rosberg. Indeed by the end Nico’s advantage had drifted out the way, to 15 seconds.
And his deficit to Lewis on points has drifted further in, to a scant two. To think just a week ago we thought Nico was done. But he does like to bounce back at precisely these moments. It’s really another thing we should have foreseen.