LONDON (REUTERS) – Nico Rosberg, the last driver to take Lewis Hamilton all the way and win a Formula One title battle, knows what the Briton and Red Bull rival Max Verstappen are going through in Abu Dhabi this weekend.
Even if they manage to keep a lid on emotions, the retired 2016 world champion was sure both would be feeling huge pressure.
“I was in such a title battle in 2016 and it’s a lot, just the intensity. The nerves,” Rosberg, then Hamilton’s teammate at dominant Mercedes, told Sky Sports television on Saturday (Dec 11).
“Someone like Max, from outside, sometimes you think ‘This guy doesn’t even get nervous’, but that’s not true. Inside, we’re still all humans… and both of them will be on the edge of their seats this weekend.”
The 36-year-old German, who retired days after taking the title in Abu Dhabi, said sleeping in the run-up to the showdown was “an absolute disaster” for him.
“It was like two, maximum three, hours per night. I couldn’t even eat properly. The food wouldn’t go down. So I had to revert back to my childhood food which was Frosties (cereal) and milk,” he recalled.
“That was the only thing that would go down.
“And it’s all these troubles that you are then fighting throughout the weekend, you just have to try and spare the energy to when it matters.”
Hamilton and Verstappen are locked in a generational battle, with the 36-year-old Mercedes driver chasing a record eighth crown and the Dutch 24-year-old his first.
The pair have collided three times already and are level on points going into the final race – only the second time that has happened and the first since 1974 – with Verstappen 9-8 ahead on wins.
Social media is going full throttle, with fans of each driver arguing over every twist and turn of the championship.
Rosberg felt his former teammate would come out on top ultimately.
“Lewis is on fire, he has such great form, winning three (races) in a row and he’s brought it into free practice here,” he said as Hamilton topped final practice, marking himself out as favourite for pole position.
“You kind of feel he has to be a little bit the favourite at the moment.”
The Briton steered his Mercedes around the revised 5.2km layout of the Yas Marina track in 1min 23.274sec, beating the Dutchman by 0.214 of a second.
Valtteri Bottas, in his final race with Mercedes ahead of a switch to Alfa Romeo next season, was third at 0.751sec off the pace.
Saturday’s final hour of running ahead of qualifying was not smooth sailing for either of the two contenders.
Verstappen, who had led Friday’s first session of practice before struggling for outright speed in the second session, lost track time as Red Bull carried out work on his rear wing to solve what team boss Christian Horner called a “reliability issue”.
Hamilton, who pushed his rival off the timesheets to end Friday with the fastest time, set his benchmark early on. But, he then struggled to improve on it in later attempts as his rear tyres overheated.
Rosberg said Hamilton was also effective at playing the media, with Horner on Friday casting the battle between the two contenders as Max versus the Mercedes machine.
“The media game is something you have to play if you want to win a world championship. It’s always like that because the media has such a power, even internally in the team,” said the German.
“Lewis is very, very good at that. His latest strategy has been to stay out of things, stay very low profile and just let the attention and pressure build on Max’s shoulders. And that has worked very well.
“Christian has to try and do what he can because for young Max, it’s the first time he’s in a championship fight. It’s a big ask, against one of the greatest of all time.”
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