Although four-time world champion Alain Prost rates Lewis Hamilton as “one of the best” Formula One drivers ever, he would be happy to see Nico Rosberg clinch the championship on Sunday as a credit to his resilience and mental strength.
“For one reason: He deserves it,” Prost said on Saturday. “Lewis is an exceptional driver, we all know that. Rosberg had to work hard to be close to him.”
Rosberg leads Hamilton by 12 points heading into Sunday’s title decider, with both winning nine races this year. The German driver is odds on to seal his first world championship, needing only to finish the race third if Hamilton wins.
“Depending on how they start, it can be an easy race for Nico,” Prost said. “Maybe Ferrari or the Red Bull is much closer to the Mercedes and we have a fight with three, four cars. That would be a little bit different in terms of pressure.”
Prost cautioned Rosberg against racing too conservatively, as it could leave him open to getting caught in the middle of other drivers.
“The pressure is on his shoulders, not Hamilton’s. For Nico, it is difficult to push at the maximum, it’s better to be second and not risk too much,” Prost said. “That’s normal, you cannot reproach him that. The problem is that if you start to have (Sebastian) Vettel, (Max) Verstappen, (Kimi) Raikkonen, and (Daniel) Ricciardo beside you. The pressure is difficult.”
Should Hamilton upset the odds, the British driver will join Prost as a four-time F1 champion.
“He’s right at the top … I would never say ‘This driver is No. 1.’ But he’s one of the best,” the 61-year-old Frenchman said in the Yas Marina paddock area. “He’s an exceptional driver, so I would prefer to have him (getting four titles) because he deserves what he gets.”
Hamilton has won 52 races, one more than Prost in an outstanding career with McLaren, Renault, Ferrari and Williams.
Prost won his championships in 1985, ’86, ’89 and ’93, and during his heyday was involved in red-hot tussles with Ayrton Senna.
The tension ebbed and flowed before reaching breaking point when they were rivals on the same McLaren team during the ’89 campaign.
The flamboyant, charismatic, and thrilling Senna was much loved and a huge fans’ favorite with worldwide appeal, whereas the more stoic Prost was nicknamed “The Professor” for his meticulous, almost surgically precise approach to driving.
He was seen as the antithesis to Senna and sees this juxtaposition somewhat reflected in the Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry.
“The media, the public, all think he (Rosberg) is very below Lewis Hamilton. Psychologically, it’s very difficult to manage that, especially when you fight against Lewis,” Prost said.
“In a way, I was in the situation in `89 when (everyone) was really behind Ayrton. It’s very difficult to manage that psychologically. I have sympathy with Nico, because he’s considered like this and I can understand how he can feel.”
While he considers Rosberg still to be “a little bit behind” Hamilton in terms of their driving ability, he thinks Rosberg does not get enough credit. A title win, Prost says, would have a liberating effect and might enable Rosberg to go up a gear next year.
“If Rosberg wins then maybe next year we have a different situation,” he said. “(Could) he be better if he had the support of everybody? We don’t know. That’s why, in a way I would like to see him champion because then we can see.”