Nonchalantly sauntering across the 2010 Bahrain Grand Prix paddock, Nico Rosberg is on his way to the Mercedes garage. Passing a small group of seasoned F1 photographers, the German nods hello.
“Nico, I want you to destroy that ol' man team-mate of yours,” one of them orates.
Looking him straight in the eye Rosberg replies, with absolute seriousness and intent, “I will’, turns and continues on his way.
That team-mate was no young gun rookie, or malleable journeyman, rather the seven-times world champion and sporting great, Michael Schumacher.
Back in the day many of us who followed Formula 1 expected – perfectly understandably – young Nico to be overcome by the mindgames so expertly played by his illustrious team-mate. Boy, were we wrong. Schumacher finally departed the sport after three years of frustration with Rosberg no doubt mentally tougher for the experience.
Fast forward to now and in a world championship title-chasing car, against a team-mate with outstanding on-track ability, he’s putting all those lessons learned to stunning use, playing the off-track psycho war with ruthless aplomb.
Dead centre of Nico’s mindgame crosshairs is of course Lewis Hamilton and, right now, every shot the German fires is hitting its target with devastating effect.
Composed and cocksure, Rosberg has always cut a confident character, certain in the knowledge that he’s got it all, but only now are we seeing just why he’s so self-assured.
Poor Lewis looks lost, unable to respond to Rosberg’s qualifying and race day brilliance, and – as a result – is helpless in the political cold war that is so beguiling to behold.
We shouldn’t be surprised, should we? If Nico’s confidence in facing up to and eventually seeing off Schumacher is anything to go by, then Lewis Hamilton – with all his frailties – presents Rosberg with a far easier psychological challenge.
Just look at the way the two Mercedes rivals behave in the paddock.
Nico looks the part, with his way-too-cool gunslinger-like swagger, exhibiting the rock-solid self-confidence and unflappability that evince a lifetime of luxury, whereas Lewis appears all affected, aloof and porcelain-fragile.
Completely unable to accept that Nico can be as quick as him, Lewis is having to deal with the nightmare reality that his team-mate is – right now – actually quicker and seemingly able to get more from the car. Rosberg’s Montreal pole lap and subsequent second-place race finish – in which he expertly nursed a very sick machine to the chequered flag – demonstrated all the attributes required for championship success.
Hamilton, one senses, is trying hard, trying way too hard, to appear relaxed and calm; but, seemingly, the more he tries the more uptight he comes across. I don’t necessarily mean in TV interviews, rather in general paddock demeanour, often away from the cameras’ gaze. Cutting a lonely figure, earphones attached, phone to his ear or head hanging low, he seems confused as to just how he should be. One can imagine that if Hamilton's advisors – whoever they may currently be – suggested that he be himself, Lewis wouldn’t know what that meant.
Sunday’s Montreal drivers’ parade ‘green room’ perfectly illustrated the conflicts of Hamilton’s character. All brooding and alone, earphones in and listening to music, while his peers chatted, smiled and looked happy with their lot. Five minutes later Hamilton and Rosberg – in a pre-planned stunt at Turn 2 – stood together in front of thousands of grandstand-seated fans. Lewis, now suddenly all happiness and light, came over all pally with his ‘friend’, resting an arm on Nico’s shoulder. The German was having none of it, backing away and cutting Lewis down with an icy glare.
As this season of Mercedes dominance plays out there will surely be highs and lows for both the Stuttgart company’s men, but, right now, there’s one man in control and they both know who that is.
A notable ex-F1 driver opined to me pre-season that Nico would be beaten by Lewis on speed alone but had one real chance to turn the tables. Get inside his head, and he’ll crack.
It would appear Rosberg had the same thought.
Job done…. Almost!