London, United Kingdom | AFP |
In Formula One, it was the year that had everything and more.
From the arrival of a precocious teenage star to the abrupt retirement of a first-time champion, 2016 will be remembered as a roller-coaster of surprises, accidents, rivalries and farewells.
Dutchman Max Verstappen, the son of journeyman racer Jos Verstappen, won on his debut with the Red Bull team at the Spanish Grand Prix and went on to dazzle and, sometimes, ignite hostility. A champion was born.
Defending champion and three-time title-holder Lewis Hamilton drove brilliantly, but not often enough to overcome a sequence of setbacks that cost him glory – and handed his team-mate and rival Nico Rosberg the crown.
The Englishman’s 10th win came in November’s season-ender in Abu Dhabi, where he was foiled in a last-gasp attempt to create a trap for his team-mate. No-one has won so many races without taking the title.
Rosberg survived and overcame his nerves to finish second in a tense conclusion to a championship that had seen him lead from the front, fall behind and then regain the initiative in the closing months.
Five celebratory days later, the 31-year-old German son of the 1982 champion Keke Rosberg announced he was leaving the sport to be with his family.
Mercedes, the dominant force that carried him to success on the crest of a third successive constructors’ championship, were left chasing after a replacement.
Team boss Toto Wolff also had to face up to the likely departure of his ever-reliable and even-tempered sidekick technical boss Paddy Lowe who looked set to join Williams.
In typical F1 fashion, it appeared likely that Williams’ star driver Finn Valtteri Bottas was being lined up as Rosberg’s replacement in the most coveted seat in the pit-lane for the faster ‘new-look’ cars of 2017.
The placid Bottas may prove to be a perfect choice, not least because of his temperament. He has plenty of speed, too, but is unlikely to match Rosberg’s run of wins.
Rosberg reeled off wins in Australia, Bahrain, China and Russia to leave Hamilton panting in pursuit.
When the F1 circus reached Barcelona, he led by 43 points.
On May 15, the first major pivot in the drama arrived. The two Mercedes men collided into each other on the opening lap, Verstappen blazed to glory, aged 18, and F1’s order was truly shaken up.
Two weeks later, he almost won in Monaco, but for a messy pit-stop strategy and the excellence of Hamilton in the rain, the Briton winning for the first time in more than six months.
In the same two races, Rosberg’s early-season confidence went from easy to brittle. He led the points’ chart, but he could sense Hamilton’s heat and speed and the chase was on.
It stayed that way with Hamilton eventually taking over the championship lead in July after a phenomenal run of wins.
But his engine failures and other assorted mechanical problems cost him dear with penalties when the action resumed in Belgium where he took as many new parts as possible and conceded victory to Rosberg.
Revived Rosberg took full advantage of Hamilton’s wavering concentration and won again in Italy and then in Singapore and Japan, after Ricciardo had triumphed in Malaysia.
Mercedes dominance was unquestioned, but Red Bull were back as their main rivals while Ferrari blustered and flustered, accompanied by a rumour machine suggesting weekly fallouts in the team.
All this left Hamilton a distant second, but he ended the year as Rosberg began it with four straight wins, including a demonstration in the rain in Brazil where Verstappen raced from 15th to finish third.
By then, too, it was clear only a minor miracle could enable Hamilton to keep his crown as Rosberg finished second and second and second and second. It was all he needed in the nerve-shredding duel in the desert.
There, he wept with joy while others, including popular veterans Briton Jenson Button and Brazilian Felipe Massa signed off. In a year of some upheaval, McLaren also said goodbye in acrimonious circumstances to their long-serving boss Ron Dennis after a board-room shake-up.