Depending on whose definition you chose, mano a mano can mean hand to hand, head to head or man to man, but it is universally taken to refer to battle. In Formula One’s 2014 parlance, it also means Hamilton versus Rosberg. Or Rosberg versus Hamilton, as it was again here as the German took pole for Sunday’s Canadian Grand Prix by 0.079sec.
Without Mercedes’s willingness to let their drivers compete against one another, this new season of the eco hybrid machines would have been a damp squib. But with it, we have a fascinating contest that was elevated to a new level with the acrimony which erupted between the two in Monaco, where Rosberg may, or may not, deliberately have engineered the incident in which he slid down the escape road at the Mirabeau corner while trying to beat his own fastest lap time in final qualifying, thus ensuring that his benchmark could not be beaten by Hamilton as the yellow warning flags had to be deployed.
The world has debated that one endlessly since, and will doubtless continue to do so. But in F1 things inevitably move on. And Saturday saw another gripping battle of nerve and skill.
Ferrari and Renault hoped desperately that modifications to their power units would level the playing field here, but they were still struggling in the Mercedes’s wake during practice, and again in qualifying, even though Sebastian Vettel was back as their primary challenger.
Once again Hamilton led Rosberg for much of the weekend. He was faster in every practice session and in the first two qualifying sessions but, when it mattered, Rosberg again got the drop on him.
Their first Q3 runs stopped the clock in 1min 14.946sec and 1:15.014 respectively in Rosberg’s favour. And that’s the order it stayed in after their second, except that as Hamilton trimmed down to 1:14.953, Rosberg likewise improved to 1:14.874.
This time Hamilton was gracious in defeat. “I went wide a couple of times in turns six and eight, but in any case Nico did a better job today so I need to work hard to make sure I do a better job tomorrow,” he said afterwards. Rosberg added: “Of course it helped that I had that first banker lap, because that gives you confidence to push. And it also gave me confidence after winning in Monaco because Lewis had had that winning streak, so it was important to put an end to that momentum he had been building up.”
Vettel, cheerfully observing their duel, admitted that his Red Bull isn’t yet behaving the way he would prefer. “It’s not like last year, stepping into a dream car where everything was smooth and perfect,” he lamented. “I’m always concerned when I get into it whether it’s good enough to make it. We are not yet tickling the right spots.”
While Vettel expects it to be a two-horse race for title, Hamilton said he would, nevertheless, be keeping a wary eye on Red Bull. But Rosberg is his primary target, and his best hope in the race lies in getting the jump on him at the start if he is to avoid another afternoon of chasing the championship leader round the course and falling seven points further behind in the standings.
“It’s very difficult to overtake here,” he said reflectively, “especially when someone is in the same car as you and has the same pace.” But that doesn’t mean he won’t be driving his heart out to do just that.