Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg: Mercedes must prevent drivers’ distrust plumbing the depths of Prost v Senna

 

Monaco

Lewis Hamilton smiles at the irony whenever he reads comments about how he and Nico Rosberg, his nemesis on the streets here at the weekend, are friends, because he knows their relationship has never been what it is often being made out to be.

“The fact is that we’ve never been best friends since we started racing together when we were 13. We live in the same building here in Monaco and we say hi to each other, but we don’t have lunches and dinners together,” Hamilton said when the dust had settled on his second to Rosberg in the Monaco Grand Prix that leaves him four points behind his team-mate at the top of the drivers’ standings.

After five races in which they kept control of their feelings, the gloves are now off and it is clear that, within the framework of working together on technical matters laid down by Niki Lauda and Toto Wolff at Mercedes, they will each go their own way. It’s what happens when two highly competitive people come together in the same environment and go after a goal only one can achieve. And are allowed by their team to fight.

Read more: Monaco GP race report
Hamilton: Rosberg and I aren't friends
Monaco GP - as it happened

Does it make their partnership Formula One’s most acrimonious since Ayrton Senna joined Alain Prost at McLaren for 1988 and 1989? Not yet, by a long way, and Hamilton’s relationship with Fernando Alonso at McLaren in his rookie season in 2007 was more toxic than matters currently are with Rosberg. It took years to heal the wounds with Alonso.

 

Inevitably, things work better when a relationship is harmonious. Nobody knows that better than Lauda. But he detested his Argentinian team-mate Carlos Reutemann at Ferrari and delighted in destroying him in 1977 on the way to the second of his three titles.

In last year’s Malaysian Grand Prix Sebastian Vettel took a tarnished victory after disobeying orders from Red Bull’s team principal, Christian Horner, to stay behind team-mate Mark Webber in the “Multi 21” scandal in which Vettel kept his engine at full power after an unsuspecting Webber had obeyed instructions to turn his down.

 

It was well known since their clash in the Turkish Grand Prix in 2010, and Webber’s comment in victory at Silverstone that year – “Not bad for a No 2 driver” – that their relationship was strained, but while the Webber camp referred to Vettel as “Princess Petal”, the two tolerated one another.

By 1989, Senna and Prost could not stand the sight of each other. “He has no value as a man,” Senna said of Prost. “Ayrton’s problem is that he thinks God drives with him,” the Frenchman retaliated.

Alonso and Hamilton’s relationship was not anything like as vituperative, and Nigel Mansell’s unhappy partnership with Nelson Piquet at Williams in 1986-87 was confined to verbal sniping and things such as the mischievous Piquet hiding the garage loo roll in Mexico in 1986 when he knew his team-mate had a stomach upset.

So far nobody in Formula One has matched Gary Bettenhausen’s and Larry Dickson’s fraught rivalry in America’s tough USAC sprintcar series, where Dickson had a photo of his rival taped to his steering wheel boss so that he could punch it as he raced.

The closest Formula One got to such an enmity did not concern Senna and Prost but Williams’ Alan Jones and Reutemann, after the Argentine refused to give way to the ebullient Australian in Brazil in 1981. Months later, when Reutemann sought to bury the hatchet, Jones replied pithily, “I’d be happy to bury it – in your back.”

Mercedes must be very careful now how they manage the distrust between their two drivers, especially as they face a growing challenge from Red Bull. It emerged after Sunday’s race that Hamilton had already annoyed Rosberg by keeping ahead in Spain recently. The Briton disobeyed team orders and turned up his engine settings. But Hamilton countered that Rosberg had done exactly that in Bahrain.

Executive director Wolff insists that will not happen again. “They are probably exploring how far you can step above the line and what the consequences are,” he said. “But isn’t that normal? You have a chance of winning the championship and as long as it is not detrimental to the team spirit, as long as it is not underhand, we will handle the situation the way we did before. The moment it goes in the direction where we believe it is not the spirit of Mercedes-Benz, we will act accordingly.”

So far, the rivalry has been confined to some examples of devious subterfuge, and that can largely be handled. But a collision would be disastrous, which is why Hamilton was talked down after he had threatened to behave like Ayrton Senna and risk vengeful contact with Rosberg in the first corner at Monaco. It was his turn to be disingenuous on Sunday evening as he dismissed that as idle banter. “I was just joking. Seriously,” he insisted. “The priority is the team, and I’m not stupid enough to do anything to jeopardise that.”

But then he added: “I know people are going to write whatever they’re going to write, so I’m going to keep my mouth shut. But I wish you could have seen the data [from Rosberg’s qualifying run], I’m sure you did see the incident on TV. If you haven’t, then you should go and watch it. I saw something on the data late last night, and all I could do was smile.”

So what did he see? “I’m not going to tell you,” he said. “I just wish you could see it.”

The intra-team battle that is keeping Formula One alive after Mercedes took over from Red Bull as its dominator begins again in Canada next week, on a track that Hamilton loves and where he crushed Alonso in 2007.

“I’m stronger mentally than ever before,” he insists, already preparing to bounce back. The fascination will be seeing what Rosberg has left in his locker so that he can counter-attack. And that’s how it will now be all season. We should be thanking the gods of sport for this gift.

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