In-house Mercedes battle turns nasty

By Mark HughesBBC F1 commentary box producer

There is a fascinating struggle for supremacy between Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher behind the scenes at their Mercedes team - and it burst out into the open in a very tough opening-lap battle between the two men in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.

On this occasion it was Rosberg who staked his claim to the status of team number one.

Not only did Rosberg prevail in the first-lap squabble - which seemed particularly intense in the way Schumacher almost drove Rosberg off the track on the approach to Turn Eight at the end of the long straight - but he also went on to finish one place and a substantial 23 seconds ahead of the seven-time champion.

Although that margin was exaggerated by a slow puncture for Schumacher in the closing stages, the result of their intra-team battle was never in doubt.

It was an interesting about turn in their fortunes from the previous race in India, where Schumacher hounded Rosberg for most of the distance, then went ahead at the final stops.

In August, Jock Clear returned from a factory-based role to become Schumacher's performance engineer alongside race engineer Peter Bonnington, who replaced Mark Slade. Since then, the 42-year-old's form has steadily improved.

Rosberg, 26, continues to be consistently faster in qualifying but increasingly Schumacher has had stronger race pace.

Combined with his ability to consistently improve upon his grid position on the first lap, this has helped him match his younger team-mate much more closely than he did last year.

According to team insiders, the Clear-Schumacher-Bonnington partnership has become an incredibly tight unit, a team within a team, determined to beat the car on the other side of the garage.

Between them, they have found a sweet spot in the car's set-up that enables Schumacher to maintain good pace but retain tyre performance for longer than before.

It was Schumacher's gentler tyre usage that enabled him to prevail at India, allowing him to pump in fast laps on old tyres after Rosberg had been forced to pit for replacements. Their harder compounds ensured they were not as fast as Schumacher's older, softer tyres in the crucial overlap between the respective stops of the two drivers.

The reversal of positions in that final stop was also partly to do with a two-second pit-stop delay for Rosberg, which fuelled conspiracy theories.

But there is nothing about this in-team competition to suggest a Schumacher-led conspiracy rather than a healthy rivalry.

If there are things Schumacher can sometimes do better, then it is down to Rosberg to understand what they are and incorporate them into his game.

Rosberg remains the faster driver, as his continuing qualifying dominance underlines, and he has extended his deal with the team until the end of 2013.

Schumacher's contract runs out at the end of next season, when he will be nearly 44 - and he said in Abu Dhabi that he had not yet decided whether he wants to race on beyond that.

His recent threat to Rosberg in the races, despite his qualifying speed deficit, says a huge amount for the raw competitive desire that fuelled the incredible achievements of his first career.

But the speed itself is still not of the order from his initial spell in the sport.

Were the Mercedes not in competitive isolation - significantly slower than the Ferrari, but a lot faster than Force India and Renault - then the qualifying speed differences from Rosberg to Schumacher would be hurting the older man more than they are.

In Abu Dhabi, Schumacher was 0.9 seconds slower, yet that translated into only one grid place.

Schumacher's determination, experience and competitive soul mean he can never be discounted by a team-mate - and Rosberg can doubtless learn something from that, and should.

But the colossus Schumacher who bestrode F1 prior to his first retirement has not yet reappeared.

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