Sky F1’s Nico Rosberg believes Lewis Hamilton will start to approach Max Verstappen differently in wheel-to-wheel combat now the Dutchman has emerged as a chief title rival.
Sunday afternoon’s Portuguese GP will see Hamilton and Verstappen line up second and third respectively on the grid behind Valtteri Bottas, who is aiming to ignite his own championship challenge from pole position,
Speaking during his first appearance of the season on Sky Sports F1 at Portimao on Saturday, Rosberg said the events of the first lap at Imola two weeks ago – when Verstappen and Hamilton made contact as the Red Bull overtook the Mercedes at the first chicane – were significant.
“Now we’re in a very different situation,” said the 2016 champion of the Hamilton-Verstappen dynamic into the latter’s seventh year on the grid.
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“Now Verstappen is the number one rival and the elbows are coming out. I don’t think Lewis is going to be backing out like he used to back in the day.
“I promise you Lewis has noted that Turn One in Imola. He will remember that and will be ready for payback.
Hamilton admitted in 2019 that “you always leave Max a lot of space, it’s the smartest thing you can do”.
Reflecting on the opening dramatic two events of the season, Rosberg said: “I think we’re in for a fantastic season this year, because Red Bull vs Mercedes – and their cars are equally as fast and they have fantastic drivers fighting it out there on track.
“We’re seeing wheel-banging between Hamilton and Verstappen already, and we’re only two races in. It’s going to be a great year.
“Max Verstappen is arguably as equally a phenomenal driver as Lewis Hamilton at the moment.
“Max has always had phenomenal speed, it’s just that he was too aggressive and made mistakes a few years ago. Now he’s really put it together, and the mistakes are just not there for Max anymore.
“He can really take it to Lewis.”
What’s the story from Portimao so far? Watch Ted’s Qualifying Notebook!
Mercedes with starting advantage over Red Bull at Portimao
Verstappen’s impressive wet-weather victory at Imola a fortnight ago came from third on the grid and the Dutchman starts from the same position on Sunday, although conditions are not expected to be so changeable on Sunday.
Qualifying represented Mercedes’ first front-row lockout of the season and the world champions’ W12 seemingly holds a slight advantage over Red Bull’s RB16B so far at Portimao, particularly on the medium tyre which all four cars will start on for the race’s first stint.
“I didn’t enjoy one single lap this weekend, just because of the state of the track,” said Verstappen after qualifying. “The layout is amazing but grip we are experiencing, I don’t think it’s nice. I know it’s the same for everyone, but for me personally, it’s not enjoyable to drive
“We’ll see [on Sunday] what we can do. It’s not so easy to follow here but if we have good pace then for sure we’ll put the pressure on.”
Hamilton, who leads Verstappen by a single point in the championship, told Sky F1: “It’s going to probably be a close battle between the three of us and we’ll try and get as close as Valtteri as I can off the start.”
Bottas will attempt to make it three race winners in as many races at the start of the new season to start to get into the title picture himself after one third and one DNF so far.
“We need to focus on the race start and go from there,” said the Finn. “You know what the plan is.”
Red Bull also have Sergio Perez on the second row but Rosberg reckons the fact all four front-running cars start on the same tyres means Mercedes remain in the box seat.
“It’s not going to be easy [for Red Bull] because they’re all starting on the medium tyre and that gives them a very long first stint and some flexibility for Mercedes,” said Rosberg.
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