In Bahrain their duel for victory had spectators the world over on the edge of their seats as they fought wheel to wheel, millimetres apart.
On the one hand, Lewis Hamilton, the superfast never-say-die spiritual successor to Gilles Villeneuve, the swashbuckling cavalier whose insouciant desire to win captivated all privileged to witness it. On the other hand, Nico Rosberg, nothing like his flamboyant, world-title-winning father, Keke, but more of a cool and calculating engineer-racer akin to The Professor, Alain Prost.
Long-time friends who have raced together since their karting days, team-mates – yet intense rivals on the track. Yes, they really do like each other. No, they each hate being beaten by the other. In racing, the first person you want to beat is your team-mate.
Mercedes’ three wins from three races so far this season – Rosberg in Australia, Hamilton in Malaysia and Bahrain – have given the team a performance advantage over their opposition reminiscent of 1988 when McLaren-Honda won 15 of the season’s 16 grands prix. On present form Mercedes could do the same now.
On paper, that sounds even worse than Red Bull winning nine races on the bounce at the end of 2013, but what made 1988 so sensational was Ron Dennis’s bold insistence that Prost and Ayrton Senna were free to race each other. At Mercedes, team principal Toto Wolff, also a racer, is equally insistent that he won’t impose team orders.
In the Bahrain Grand Prix earlier this month, the Hamilton-Rosberg duel went into its final stages with Rosberg enjoying a strategic tyre-performance advantage. On the face of it, Hamilton was toast; instead, he fended off his team-mate time and again and beat him to the finish line by a second.
“Nico drove fantastically well and it was very, very hard to keep him behind,” Hamilton beamed breathlessly. “He was very fast so I was on the knife edge the whole time and it was a real relief when I got across the line. It was one of my most difficult races… I think the last time I had a race like that would probably be Indianapolis 2007, with Fernando [Alonso].
“Me and Nico haven’t had a race like that since our karting days. There was a race we did years ago, in karting, our first race together. He was leading the whole way and in the last lap I overtook him and won. I thought today for sure he’s going to get me back.”
Rosberg made no bones about it: “I strongly dislike coming second to Lewis, that’s really not something I enjoy doing. But on the other hand it was definitely the most exciting race I’ve ever done in my whole career. Lewis did a good job defending. It was a massive fight out there and that’s what I’m here for. For racing like that.”
One had to win, and the other had to lose, and each played their role to perfection. But do they really get on? Are they really friends? Will their relationship survive their first collision, which some believe to be as inevitable as those between Senna and Prost?
The friendship is genuine, and crucial, because if they battle at the front of the field all season, it’s the thing that could prevent their rivalry escalating into the feud that developed between Senna and Prost.
Hamilton is a world champion, and by racing strongly against him last year and this, Rosberg has proved once and for all that he really is a topliner.
Back in 1988 Prost was a double champion and Senna had already won races, but the Brazilian set out cynically not just to beat the Frenchman, not just to prove to the world that he himself was the best, but to destroy him.
Today it’s hugely difficult, with data-sharing between team-mates, for one driver to achieve a set-up advantage over the other, as Prost or Senna did.
“You do a fantastic lap,” Hamilton says. “Your team-mate does a lap and it’s not so good and then he compares that lap’s data and can say, ‘Shoot, that guy is braking five metres later than me in Turn one,’ or ‘he’s on the power earlier than me’ or ‘he’s using a different gear to me’. Any advantage through your skill is immediately taken away, or inherited.
“Then Nico will go out and go faster and I’ll see he’s using third instead of second gear, so I’ll do the same and I’ll find that time. So it’s a constant evolution.”
Rosberg agrees. “It’s difficult. On the one side you are a team and you are driving to win the constructors’ championship because that is where the money is. But at the same time you want to race and beat each other and that’s what the fans want to see – racing.
“There’s always going to be that compromise because there are teams, and then there are drivers in the team fighting it out. It’s always difficult, especially if you are fighting for race wins. We are massively competitive. The faster our car gets the more difficult it will become.”
So they will continue to study and stalk one another throughout the season, like prizefighters, seeking whatever advantage they can exploit within the team’s unwritten rules that all data must be shared, that the garage won’t be divided, and that both cars should finish.
“But,” Wolff insists, “within those parameters, we want them to be able to race. We want to win, but we don’t want to spoil the racing for anyone by imposing team orders.”
Bring it on.