Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg led at the start of the Spanish Grand Prix (GP); then both Mercedes cars crashed out before the fourth corner in the first lap of the race.

It was another boiling point in the four-year “rivalry" between the two teammates.

They have clashed in the past too: the 2014 Monaco GP qualifying, where Rosberg “stole" an advantage for pole position; the Belgian GP later that season, as Hamilton retired; and then the 2015 US GP, where they nearly had another incident in the opening lap. The common factor in these flashpoints: Hamilton did come out on top at the end, taking the drivers’ championship for two successive seasons.

This time around, things have been different. When he reached Spain, Hamilton hadn’t won any of the last seven races, stretching back to the 2015 Mexican GP, an unprecedented win-less streak given the advantage Mercedes currently enjoys in Formula One (F1). It was all the more glaring because Rosberg won all those seven races.

Finishing the 2015 season on a high, the German driver took that momentum into the new season. And by the time the European stage began in Spain this year, he was already ahead of Hamilton by 43 points.

“We have such an incredible car, which is really a pleasure to drive, so I just want to try to win as many races as possible," Rosberg said after his fourth straight win in 2016 at the Russian GP in Sochi. “But it is still early days and I am just taking it race by race. It’s only four races from 21."

Part of the advantage Rosberg has enjoyed can be put down to Hamilton’s hard luck. At the Chinese GP, he suffered a gearbox issue and, for a change, was given the penalty of starting at the back of the grid. Thereafter, he suffered another incident, and finished seventh. In the Russian GP that came next, the issues returned and he qualified only at 10th place. During the race, he recovered well enough and was about to challenge Rosberg for the lead when a water leak forced him to drive conservatively for the last 16 laps. He had to settle for second place.

Mercedes was accused of favouring Rosberg, almost as if it was his chance to win the championship after two titles for his teammate. So much so that team boss Toto Wolff was forced to comment. “Of course we don’t do it deliberately. This is a mechanical sport and we wouldn’t let these things happen," he said in Russia.

He was helped in this rebuttal when Hamilton won the next two races, in Monaco and Canada, in style; Rosberg finished a perplexing seventh and fifth, respectively. It allowed the British three-time champion to close the gap to just nine points, a huge see-saw in fortunes that ignited the world championship battle once again. Can Rosberg, pummelled by Hamilton two years in a row, make this season count?

In motorsport, just like in any other sport, a lot of factors are at play. The big difference here is the mechanical nature of a majority of them; things often spiral out of control of the drivers and affect their standings.

A prime example here is the fight put up by Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who is placed third in the championship after eight races (96 points), and is within touching distance of the two Mercedes drivers after some consistent performances.

Or, take the ascendancy enjoyed by Red Bull Racing, with its new driver pairing of Daniel Ricciardo and the red-hot Max Verstappen bringing in a race win and another podium in the last four races. But for their errors in Spain and Monaco, they should have had two race wins, thereby eating further into Mercedes’ points haul.

Hamilton’s dual victory before the season’s mid-point has kept his title defence afloat. But there is a strong hint of a lack of concentration in his driving style this year. In the last two seasons, he has often converted Mercedes’ advantage into pole position on a Saturday and then driven to easy victories on Sunday. This year, he has been on pole in four of the eight races thus far, but has managed to convert only one of them into a race win (in Canada).

“It’s definitely a big advantage starting up front there (on the grid), so I need to get back on it in qualifying and do a better job than last time out," said Hamilton, who finished fifth in Baku, Azerbaijan. Even in the subsequent race, he struggled with the turbo-engine’s settings, unable to harness his car’s power at a vital point in the race, and couldn’t sort it out without inputs from the pit wall (in light of the assistance-on-radio ban). While Rosberg suffered the same problem, he was able to correct it shortly afterwards, and Hamilton’s critics have jumped on his lack of simulator time as the reason for his troubles.

Even so, this doesn’t explain his sluggish performance in races this year. He was beaten to the first corner in Australia, got into skirmishes with Williams’ Valtteri Bottas in the opening lap in both Bahrain and China, and then was involved in that opening lap double-crash in Spain. While Mercedes’ hierarchy refused to openly blame either of their drivers in Barcelona, the team’s non-executive chairman, Niki Lauda, publicly asked Hamilton to be more patient. It was reported during Channel 4’s race broadcast that Hamilton was explicitly advised to show restraint in the opening lap of the tight Baku street-circuit 10 days ago.

Beset with problems, Hamilton was nowhere in contention that race weekend, a complete reversal from the situation over the previous two weekends. Meanwhile, Rosberg recovered from his dip in form to drive home a faultless victory from start to finish, again increasing the gap to 24 points.

In the podium interview, when F1 pundit Eddie Jordan asked him if he was “back with a vengeance in the championship battle", Rosberg refused to comment beyond the usual “enjoying the moment" remark. Clearly, he knows that the title race is only heating up as the F1 circus moves to Austria this weekend.

Chetan Narula is the author of History Of Formula One: The Circus Comes To India.

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