Faster than a speeding Lewis (no, really...)
Nico Rosberg has one of the toughest tasks in motorsport: squaring up to Lewis Hamilton in identical machinery. And, as our statistical analysis proves, he's doing rather well at it. Well enough to beat the Brit to the 2015 title? Nico certainly thinks so...
It's a fact: Nico Rosberg is faster than Lewis Hamilton. There, we've said it.
After an extensive statistical analysis of the 48 grands prix they've driven together as team-mates (when they've both had trouble-free races) Rosberg emerges as the quickest driver by just 0.015 seconds - less than a blink of an eye.
It's proof that the duel for the 2015 crown is closer than you might think. Lewis Hamilton can't afford to let up one iota if he wants to achieve a third world championship. "There is less than a race win between us in points," notes Rosberg [as we speak, prior to the Hungarian GP], making him a constant menace in Lewis's mirrors. "So I need to keep pushing. Maybe if I'm lucky in one race and he's not, then it's done. That's it."
The engine's running. A limousine parks directly in front of the doors of the executive jet terminal in Zuerich. The driver waits patiently for an incoming private plane en route from Nice. Aside from the crew, the only occupant onboard is a subdued Nico Rosberg. He's flown from the Cathedrale Sainte Reparat where he and his fellow drivers have been paying their respects at the funeral of Jules Bianchi.
He climbs quietly into the back of our car, still struggling to come to terms with the death of one of his fellow racers. "Very intense, very emotional," he offers as the sleek black Mercedes peels into the city traffic.
His father, Keke, raced in an era where death at the wheel was commonplace; did he have any advice for dealing with this tragedy?
"We've spoken only a little," says Nico. "He talked of his friend Elio de Angelis [who was killed in a testing accident in 1986] and he said he did not go to the funeral because he wouldn't have been able to continue driving if he had."
We're heading to the Dolder Grand Hotel, a five-star residence resembling a fairytale castle, which overlooks Lake Zurich. It's a rare chance to catch up with Nico, before F1's summer break and just ahead of the birth of his first child.
Although several more races will have taken place by the time this interview is printed, for now, the title battle is still too close to call. From Singapore on there are seven races to go and 175 points up for grabs and, just as it did last year, this title campaign could go down to the wire.
Given the parity in machinery, Lewis can never discount his team-mate. Just when he thinks a winning serve has knocked his opponent out of the game, back Nico comes with a crosscourt volley to remain in play. Lewis hammers blow after blow, but Rosberg keeps getting back on his feet: undaunted and relentless. Just like a five-set grudge match between two titans, there is no clear advantage in this fight - indeed, the stats show that Nico actually has the edge.
"Five sets in a grand slam final? Yeah that's how it feels out there sometimes," says Nico, glancing out through the back window of his chauffeur-driven Merc.
In terms of race pace, it's neck and neck between the pair of them. Analysis of their fastest race laps at the mid-point of the season, post-Hungary, shows it's five-five, with Nico an average of 0.067 seconds ahead. Last year he was roughly two tenths slower during races and told F1 Racing in pre-season testing at Jerez that it was Sundays he was planning to improve.
Conversely, Hamilton knew he needed to up his game in qualifying and we've seen a reversal between the pair during grand prix weekends. Last year Nico outqualified Lewis 12-7, but up to Spa this year, only once has Nico been quicker on a Saturday - at the Spanish GP back in early May. Still, it's the Sunday when they hand out world championship points.
"This is what I've worked on," says Rosberg in reference to his race pace, while looking through the stats F1 Racing has produced as evidence. "It's always a compromise between qualifying and the race, because you have only one car setup. If I tend towards a race setup, that's going to hurt my qualifying a little bit."
Across the board they are extremely close. In the 48 races in which they have both competed (prior to Spa) each has led 29. When they've locked out the front row of the grid, Hamilton has been ahead 12 times to 11. The average time between their best laps in qualifying and races over the past 2.5 years has never been more than 0.2 seconds, and in races in 2013 and qualifying last year Nico was 0.1 secs quicker than Lewis.
In qualifying at Shanghai, the third race of 2015, Nico missed out on pole by just 0.042 seconds. On crossing the line, he exclaimed over the radio: "Oh, come on guys!" His frustration was picked up on. "But I did that in a humorous way," he insists now. "It was taken so negatively that I thought: 'I'll just shut up next time.'"