Felipe Massa is under severe pressure in 2012. The pace of Fernando Alonso is a clear sign that Massa is not getting the most out of his Ferrari, but he is not the only driver to be falling short of his potential this season. Nico Rosberg has been Mercedes’ lead driver over the past two years but has been unable to take advantage of the team’s stronger car in 2012.
Rosberg is a brilliantly talented driver, but there have been a number of particular incidents over the last two races that suggest his form is not as its peak.
Australian Grand Prix – Qualifying
Mercedes’ pace throughout Friday practice in Melbourne was very strong and Nico Rosberg continued the impressive showing on Saturday when he topped the timesheets in Q2. For the first time in his career, Rosberg entered a qualifying session believing he had a legitimate chance of scoring pole position. He had qualified on the front row before (in Malaysia 2010) but that was an unexpected result in a rain affected session. The Australian Grand Prix gave Nico what he thought could his first shot at a genuine pole.
Perhaps that newfound pressure got to Rosberg in Q3. His first flying lap was scrappy, locking up at Turn 1, and he finished with a time that was good for only seventh on the grid. His second lap was also rough and did not improve on the first.
By contrast, Michael Schumacher has gone into hundreds of qualifying sessions expecting to fight for pole position. His two qualifying laps were excellent, the second of them being quick enough to give him fourth on the grid, three tenths ahead of Nico.
Given the raw speed that Rosberg has displayed alongside Schumacher over the last two seasons, he would have been upset with that margin.
Australian Grand Prix – Race
Rosberg made a great start in Melbourne and immediately jumped up to fourth place behind his teammate, but he was soon hunted down by Sebastian Vettel. Their ensuring battle suggested Rosberg’s wheel-to-wheel racecraft was lacking in Australia.
On lap two Vettel drove around the outside of Rosberg through Turn 9. That isn’t an overtaking place at the best of times, let alone around the outside.
It’s worth noting that Vettel was in a quick Red Bull, and that his tyres were probably running at a better temperature, but even taking that into consideration there is the feeling that Rosberg could have put up a stronger defence. If he had been later on the brakes he might have been exposed to an attack from Vettel through Turn 10 and down the long back straight, but he never gave himself the chance of holding onto the position. He was simply outclassed by a better racer.
Several laps later Vettel ran off the road at Turn 1. Rosberg got a run on Sebastian towards Turn 3 and actually pulled ahead of the Red Bull. However, he gave Vettel so much space at the end of the straight that Nico proved to be no obstacle. Again, Vettel was in the best position to edge ahead, but the Rosberg didn’t put up the strongest fight possible. You can be sure that if it was Michael Schumacher in that Mercedes he would have squeezed Vettel as much as he could down the straight to make him work for the place.
That’s not to say Rosberg should drive like Schumacher, but that he could have done more to defend his position.
At the very end of the race, Rosberg was caught in an unfortunate incident with Sergio Perez where the two drivers tagged each other heading towards Turn 11. Although neither driver was specifically to blame for the light contact, it was the sort of thing some situational awareness could have avoided. It cost Nico a points finish.
Malaysian Grand Prix – Qualifying
Mercedes entered qualifying at Sepang even more competitive than was the case in Melbourne. As it turned out, the car was just two hundredths of a second off the front row so was definitely a front-runner in qualifying.
Rosberg only attempted one flying lap in Malaysia, but like his efforts in Melbourne he bottled it at the first corner. A huge lock up cost him time and he was never able to recover from a nasty flat spot. Again, Nico ended up three tenths behind Michael Schumacher.
Malaysian Grand Prix – Race
For the second time in seven days, Rosberg found himself in a wheel-to-wheel battle with Sebastian Vettel. For the second time in seven days he was beaten comfortably.
Sebastian was able to pass Nico quite easily around the outside of Turn 1 having used DRS down the main straight. Looking at this move by itself, there is not much that Rosberg could have done. He was defending his line on a damp part of the circuit and the attacking Red Bull had an obvious DRS advantage.
However, the following lap Kimi Raikkonen launched exactly the same attack on the Mercedes. This time Nico was on the brakes much later into the first corner and pushed Kimi wide. He fought for the position through Turn 2 and up the hill towards Turn 4. He still lost the place to Raikkonen’s Lotus but he put up a much stronger fight.
The fact that Rosberg was so much stronger against Raikkonen suggested that he hadn’t pushed Vettel as hard as was possible. It was the second time in seven days that Sebastian simply drove around the outside of him, and there are other drivers on the grid that could have put up more resistance given the opportunity.
Nico Rosberg is not under the same sort of pressure as Felipe Massa and nor is he under the same intense spotlight. However, the young German has not lived up to his enormous potential so far in 2012 and will want to start performing strongly before the other teams catch Mercedes. He is one of the most talented drivers in Formula One but will not do his career any favours if he is continually outperformed by his teammate.
Michael Schumacher is still one of the strongest drivers in Formula One, but Nico Rosberg can beat him if he uses his full potential. In China he will be hoping to do just that.