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Who's the Better Driver: Lewis Hamilton vs. Nico Rosberg

One the 23rd of November, the 2014 Formula One Championship came to a close with the racing of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit. The final race officially ended a season which contained all of the drama we’ve come to expect from F1 – most of it, however, came from just one team. Jeremy Clarkson, host of the BBC television show Top Gear, often enjoys a good automotive battle between Germany and Britain. This season, he got one. While Mercedes dominated the campaign from start to finish, the team’s two drivers, Englishman Lewis Hamilton and German Nico Rosberg, duelled each other the entire season. The back and forth battling saw Hamilton take a 17 point advantage into the final GP. As we all know now, Hamilton took the checkered flag, the title and the headlines as he claimed the 2014 Drivers’ Championship. With the win, Hamilton proved he was the out-and-out better driver on the Mercedes team, right?

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe it’s not as simple as that. Formula One fans also know that Driver’s Championship titles do not necessarily prove who the best driver is. If they did, race fans would only discuss the greatness of one particular Ferrari-driving German and altogether leave out the greats such as Senna, Prost, Stewart, Brabham, Lauda and Fangio. In the case of Hamilton-Rosberg, there remains some divide over who the better driver is. Hamilton supporters may cite Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda, when he stated in an ESPN interview that Hamilton had more natural talent than Rosberg. On the other hand, Lauda also stated in the same interview that Rosberg was “his type of driver,”  a massive compliment coming from the likes of a three-time champion. As in any race-related debate, issues of reliability, fastest cars and sportsmanship complement the statistics as fans try to prove their case. At the end of the day, despite Rosberg’s qualities, it’s hard to ignore or downplay all the evidence which points to Lewis Hamilton being the superior driver on Mercedes AMG Petronas.

While statistics may not give the whole picture, they provide an excellent starting point when exploring the Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry. By season’s end, Hamilton stood at 384 points versus Rosberg’s 317. Even if we get rid of the ridiculous double-points handed out at the final race, the English driver maintains a 42 point lead over his German teammate. Of course, this only proves that one driver was capable of amassing more points than the other and doesn’t give us any details, or ‘meat on the bone.’ Where things start to get interesting is in the area of poles, wins and podium finishes. Rosberg took an impressive 11 poles over the course of the season, managing 5 GP wins and 15 podium finishes. In stark contrast, Hamilton took just 7 poles, yet managed 11 wins and 16 podium finishes. At first glance, this suggests Hamilton was the better driver who came from behind on more than one occasion to win. Of course, it’s never that simple in racing.

Critics and fans alike love pointing to reliability and who has the fastest car when debating top drivers. As far as reliability goes, both Rosberg and Hamilton faced equal problems. If we consider both Hamilton’s tire puncture in Belgium and Rosberg’s ERS issues/14th place finish at Abu Dhabi mechanical failures, then each driver suffered three race ending failures over the course of the season. This doesn’t even consider the failures suffered by Hamilton in qualifying – greatly affecting his starting position in Austria and Hungary. In terms of who had the fastest car, Hamilton’s Silver Arrow appeared much faster early on, especially after finishing 17.3 and 18 seconds ahead of Rosberg in Malaysia and China, respectively. That said, in Bahrain, Spain, Austria and Brazil, the two Mercedes battled it out and finished much closer to one another, suggesting the speed difference maybe wasn’t as clear cut.

So, what about head-to-head in a race where both drivers’ cars performed flawlessly? In short, Hamilton comes out on top. From Bahrain and the USA – two races where Rosberg held pole position – to Spain and Russia, Lewis Hamilton continually demonstrated his ability to outdrive his teammate. In fact, the Brazil GP is the only instance where Rosberg defeated Hamilton without any sort of ‘scandal,’ issues in qualifying or mechanical failure during the race. Even if we overlook the controversial qualifying session in Monaco, which saw Hamilton’s lap halted after Rosberg went off the track, there remain only two examples of Rosberg defeating Hamilton when both cars started at the top of the grid and ran an entire race without any issues.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps it all gets back to what Niki Lauda said about Hamilton in the ESPN interview. Namely, Lewis Hamilton is more talented but also more emotional. This translates out on the circuit into a driver who pushes himself and his car more – and it comes with pros and cons. In Canada, in an effort to catch Rosberg, Hamilton strained his car and its failing brake system to the point where he could not finish the race. In Brazil, Hamilton pushed too hard to gain an advantage over a pitting Rosberg and lost several seconds when he spun his car in a turn. It wasn’t all negative however. Hamilton’s aggressive driving style allowed him to grab valuable points in a number of races. In Austria, he finished second after starting ninth. In Germany, Hamilton finished third after starting 15th. In Hungary, on a track which is notoriously difficult to pass on, he managed a third place finish after starting from the pit lane. In these instances, pushing himself and his car salvaged 48 points – only a little more than the amount he defeated Rosberg by to win the Drivers’ Championship. As a result of such efforts, Hamilton is the 2014 Champion and, as Jeremy Clarkson would say, the best driver… in the world.

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