As everyone knows, in Formula 1 even the best drivers are largely at the mercy of their equipment. A brilliant driver might be able to flatter a mediocre car, but the odds are very much against his actually winning a championship with it. Likewise, a decent but not great driver might be very capable of snagging the title given a great car.
Two recent examples who come to mind are Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, both of whom won title at Williams during that team’s heyday in the 1990s. Both drivers were good, but not great. They happened to be in the right car at the right time. There were other drivers on the grid at that time who might have done equally well had they been given the same opportunity.
Then too, there’s the case of Jean Alesi, who did have the offer of a driver at Williams, which he turned down in favor of the gold and glory on offer at Maranello. Alesi, who won only a single grand prix during his career, would very likely have been world champ had he gone to Williams instead of Ferrari.
As car performance can have such a limiting impact on relative driver comparisons, in the end, the only real comparisons that most observers venture are of the intra-team variety. Team mates drive the same equipment, more or less. It’s much easier to make a relative comparison between Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull team mate Mark Webber than it is between Vettel and McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, although the latter comparison might actually be more relative to a championship battle.
One of the most interesting team mate duels of 2010 occurred between Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg. Schumacher’s come back was one of the most major stories of the season. Some predicted he would blow Rosberg out of the water. That assertion proved to be wildly optimistic. Rosberg had Schumi’s measure for most of the season. The elder German seemed to claw back some lost grond by the end of the season, but not everone is convinced that the tide will be turned for 20111.
So what does their relative performance tell us? Rosberg is the first team mate of Schumacher’s who has been able to outperform him on a regular basis. Does that mean that Rosberg is simply that good? Or has Schumi slipped that much?
Between Schumacher’s retirement from Ferrari at the end of 2006, he was completely inactive as an F1 driver. For the mosst part, the closest he came to racing was in his role as trackside poster boy for Ferrari at certain venues. For three years, he never drove a Formula 1 car in competition. This was the longest period he’d gone without racing since his karting days as a boy. It’s reasonable to expect that it would take him a while to get up to speed. Will he do so once he takes to the track this year? The signs ar promising, but nothing will be proven until the new season starts.
As for Rosberg, how good is he actually? It certainly doesn’t hurt your reputation to be able to beat Schumi for most of the year. That said, if the general consensus is that Schumacher isn’t the driver he used to be, it might take some of the luster off of Rosberg’s achievement.
As things stand, no one really knows how good Rosberg is, largely because no one really knows for certain how bad Schumi’s performance has been. All we can say for certain is that during the bulk of 2010 Rosberg seemed to have the upper hand. But this could change.