Nico Rosberg clinched his first Formula 1 drivers’ championship by finishing second in Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, following home Mercedes teammate and title rival Lewis Hamilton in a nail-biting end to the 2016 season.
Rosberg kept his cool to dodge any bullets fired at him through the race, getting through his pit stops cleanly before Hamilton backed his teammate into the chasing pack in a late attempt to win a fourth world title, defying Mercedes’ order to up his pace in the closing stages.
Despite having his mirrors filled with the chasing Max Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel in the final few laps, Rosberg managed to see it home and wrap up his first F1 world title, emulating his father, Keke, who was champion back in 1982.
Rosberg got the start he needed, making a clean getaway to hold on to second place behind Hamilton through the first corner, allaying any fears of an early setback.
Even better news for Rosberg was the fact that the threatening Red Bulls, both starting on super-softs, dropped back: Daniel Ricciardo dropped behind Kimi Raikkonen into fourth, while Max Verstappen fell to the back of the pack after a tangle coming out of Turn 1.
Hamilton was not able to immediately drop Rosberg as he may have liked, with the gap between the two Mercedes drivers hovering at around one second. Raikkonen remained a further second back, making him an ever-present threat for the title fighters.
Hamilton was brought into the pits at the end of Lap 7, handing the lead to Rosberg. The Briton took on a set of soft tires, but was forced to wait an extra second in the pits as Raikkonen brought his Ferrari in.
Rosberg followed Hamilton’s lead by coming in one lap later, also taking on soft tires, and also having to wait for Sebastian Vettel ahead to come into his box. Rosberg emerged from the pits fractionally ahead of Raikkonen, while the recovering Verstappen now split the two Mercedes.
Ricciardo failed to make his super-softs last much longer than the ultra-soft runners, coming into the pits just one lap later. The Australian came out just behind Raikkonen, the two entering battle, as were Rosberg and Verstappen ahead, the title contender being told that he had to make a pass given Verstappen’s strategy. Yet again though, Hamilton did not escape up the road as perhaps would be expected of the Briton. A gentler pace allowed him to not only look after his tires, but also continued to back Verstappen towards Rosberg.
Further back, Jenson Button’s (probable) final race in F1 came to an early end when he suffered a front-right upright failure on his car, causing his wheel to buckle and forcing the Briton to box. Upon returning to the pits, Button jumped on top of his cockpit and greeted the cheering crowd that offered a standing ovation to the outgoing McLaren racer.
Verstappen showed few signs of letting up on the super-soft tire, telling Red Bull that he wanted to extend the stint. Mercedes responded by giving Rosberg the hurry up, prompting the German to attempt a dive bomb move at the end of the back straight. Remarkably, the two drivers avoided contact, but with Verstappen left off-line, Rosberg was able to cut back and complete the overtake – one that was significant in his bid for a maiden drivers’ championship.
Verstappen came in for fresh soft tires one lap later, with Red Bull hoping to get the Dutchman to the end of the race without coming in again. Rosberg asked Mercedes how much he could push, with the go-ahead resulting in the German posting the fastest lap of the race and cutting the gap to Hamilton to less than five seconds. With Raikkonen now a further five seconds adrift of Rosberg, Hamilton was running short on championship outs.
The second round of pit stops was sparked not long after Verstappen came in, with Red Bull opting to bring Ricciardo in for his stop early at the end of Lap 25. Raikkonen followed one lap later, but came back out behind Ricciardo after the Australian made the undercut work perfectly. Ferrari’s hopes of a podium to close out 2016 were, like the light, fading fast.
Hamilton made his final pit stop at the end of Lap 28, taking a fresh set of soft tires that would see him to the end of the race. Having been told that second place was safe for now, Rosberg dived in one lap later. A flawless stop from the Mercedes crew sent Rosberg on his way, with just 26 laps separating the German from his first F1 world title.
Rosberg soon found himself edging into battle with Hamilton once again, prompting the Mercedes pit wall to ask the net leader why he was running so slow on-track. Although there was no answer, the reason was clear to all watching: it last-ditch attempt to back Rosberg into the chasing Red Bulls and keep his dreams of a fourth world title alive.
Hamilton began to hit the pace mark given to him by Mercedes, lapping around the 1:45.3 range as the team expressed concern about leader Vettel, who had extended his second stint to fit a set of super-softs for the final stint. Vettel pitted at the end of Lap 37, once again releasing Hamilton into the lead with Rosberg still lurking just over a second behind.
With his fresh boots fitted, Vettel began to light the timesheets up purple. The four-time world champion made light work of teammate Raikkonen to take fifth before setting his sights on the Red Bull duo some eight seconds up the road. Verstappen found himself coming under pressure from Ricciardo behind, but neither could respond to the pace of the oncoming Vettel. The German’s pace was such that Mercedes told Hamilton to up his pace at the front, believing that the 10-second gap could be bridged late on.
Hamilton kept badgering the Mercedes pit wall for more information on the race unfolding behind, asking for information about the pace of the Red Bulls in the hope that they could come to his rescue and catch Rosberg. With fresher tires, the Mercedes cars remained quicker, making Hamilton’s best hope of the title a late safety car period. A clash between Carlos Sainz Jr. and Jolyon Palmer had the potential to cause one, but both drivers were able to continue unharmed.
Vettel’s charge continued at the expense of Ricciardo on Lap 46, again piling the pressure up on Mercedes drivers up front. Rosberg requested that he be let past Hamilton, telling the team that “this is really slow”. Mercedes responded, instructing Hamilton to up his pace, only for the Briton to snap back:
“I suggest you guys let us race.”
With just seven laps remaining, Hamilton was taking matters into his own hands.
As Rosberg continued to protest over team radio, Hamilton continued to trundle around at the front, allowing Verstappen and Vettel to close as the laps ticked down. Vettel look the quickest of the quartet, crawling all over the back of Verstappen’s Red Bull, before making a superb pass with five laps to go. Rosberg was next on his hit list.
Vettel moved to within half a second of Rosberg, getting DRS on his compatriot, but Verstappen was not able to follow the Ferrari driver into the fight, dropping about a second back. Hamilton was not yet willing to up his pace, continuing to back Rosberg into the clutches of Vettel behind. After yet another call from Mercedes, Hamilton remained defiant:
“I’m losing this world championship. I don’t really care if I lose this race.”
The battle for the world championship went down to the very last lap. Rosberg was informed once again that he only needed third place for the championship, but the German remained strong in P2. He fended off Vettel through the final DRS zone, before rounding out the final few corners – with Hamilton ahead going at a crawling pace and taking the race win – to secure his first world title. He’d done it.