World champion Nico Rosberg has heralded the “immense” Lewis Hamilton as one of the best of all-time after his former team-mate and title rival took a 71st career pole, and his first at the Japanese GP.
Rosberg made his Sky Sports F1 debut as a pundit less than a year after retiring from the sport as a title-winner, and witnessed Hamilton’s dominant display first hand as the championship leader smashed the previous Suzuka track record.
And Rosberg, who partnered and battled Hamilton for four years at Mercedes, praised the Briton’s display after analysing the pole lap on his return to the F1 paddock.
“He’s one of the best of all-time in qualifying so it’s always going to be difficult to beat him,” Rosberg, a three-time pole-sitter in Japan, said. “His natural speed is just immense.”
Hamilton was four tenths of a second faster than Sebastian Vettel in Q3 as the Ferrari finished in third, though the four-time world champion will start the race on the front row thanks to Valtteri Bottas’ grid penalties.
But, already holding a 34-point advantage over Vettel, a maiden Suzuka pole has allowed Hamilton to strengthen his grip on the Drivers’ Championship as he approaches the final five races of 2017.
“The run after the summer was really important for me and Lewis has that run at the moment,” Rosberg, who beat Hamilton to the title by five points in 2016, explained. “He has the momentum completely on his side and it’s totally against Sebastian at the moment.
“Everything is going wrong there, and he doesn’t have the car performance here either – he’s really struggling with the Ferrari.”
However, with overtaking opportunities sparse at the iconic track, Rosberg believes Ferrari can still challenge Mercedes with a good start in the race – which he will again be commenting on with Sky F1.
“Sebastian is starting from second and all it takes is a good start – he can win the race.
“For anybody to beat Lewis you have to take advantage of the opportunities you get. That’s what I was trying to do last year and it worked quite well and that’s what Sebastian has to do this year.”
NICO ROSBERG ON…The title race and F1 2017″It’s crucial for a season-long effort to be good mentally from one weekend to the next. That’s what Lewis has managed to do for quite a while now and that’s what brought him this huge lead and that’s why everything is in his favour to take this home all the way to the end of the season. But both are fantastic drivers and both are up there with the best of all-time. I don’t think it’s going to make a difference who wins, both have had a great season and have maximised what they could out of their cars. It’s been a fantastic season for F1.”
Sebastian Vettel”I couldn’t believe it [in Baku] because he threw a definite win – through being too hot-headed and too self-confident, thinking he’s always in the right. In the long run, this is a strength of his but in some moments it can be a weakness because it just boils over. But Singapore – I’m not of the opinion he really messed up because he couldn’t see Kimi on the inside. I think he’s done a very good season and pretty much maximised everything that he could.”
Hamilton and Vettel’s strengths and weaknesses”Lewis has natural speed. Maybe his weakness is a little bit of ups and downs sometimes through the season. Sebastian’s strength is race speed and consistency in general. He’s always there and doesn’t really have the big downs. Weakness – as we saw in Azerbaijan, he’s a little hot-headed.”
Valtteri Bottas”It’s not good [to beat yourself up in the media]. It’s unnecessary because it creates a wave which you don’t need. I would say don’t speak about it and get your head down, work through it and get out the other side. Already this weekend has given him a lot of self-confidence, he has seen the speed so that will be very reassuring for him. Second place was important for him because it’s been a bit of a difficult time, he needs to get the results going again and, after the off this morning, he’s back.”
Robert Kubica (Rosberg is his manager)”He showed in the Renault test he is ready and there’s no doubt about that anymore. Physically he is 100 per cent in the car, so it’s a really exciting time. Williams are going to be testing him soon and that’s a great opportunity. I think he got really unlucky with Renault. In that moment suddenly Sainz became free because of the whole engine mix – but that’s how it works. He did double race stints with Renault and was always on the pace so there’s not that to prove. I think it’s more about getting to know each other and see if it’s a good fit. With someone of Kubica’s skill level, doing a test straight out of the box is the least of his problems.”
Max Verstappen”It’s unbelievable how it happens in sport, how you just get unlucky over and over again. It’s been very tough for him and I hope that he has a view to the distant future and he knows that this year was not going to be his chance to win the world championship and he’ll have that opportunity further down the road. The win in Malaysia was a great breakthrough and he deserved that, definitely.”
Returning to motorsport”Let’s see – it’s not the plan at the moment. But if you tell me tomorrow that I can have a day or half a day in the cars they are driving now then for sure I would have fun.”
Force India and Esteban Ocon”They’ve done a great job this year and I think both drivers [Perez and Ocon] are very, very talented. Sergio for many years but Esteban has done an impressive job this year. It’s his first complete season and from the beginning he was right up there, just behind Sergio – and now he’s in front of him every other race. It’s a really strong start. He can do great things in F1 in the future. I’m also quite enjoying their intra-team battle – it rings a bell for me! It’s not quite as difficult for them as they’re not fighting for wins and championships, and that does make a difference.”
Watch the Japanese GP LIVE ONLY on Sky Sports F1 this weekend. The race from Suzuka begins at 6am on Sunday. Want to watch but not got Sky F1? Buy a NOW TV pass from £6.99.