Nico Rosberg has tipped former Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton to scoop a sixth Formula One world title this year – although he believes some subtle regulation changes could lead to a few surprises.
Hamilton won eight of the final 11 races as he collected his fifth world crown last year, equalling Juan Manuel Fangio’s haul and moving to within two of Michael Schumacher’s record.
Rosberg, the last driver to get the better of Hamilton in 2016 before promptly retiring, expects the likes of Sebastian Vettel and new Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen to be strong contenders.
But speaking ahead of the Laureus World Sports Awards, the German suspects his old rival, who begins pre-season testing at Barcelona on Monday, will reign supreme once more.
“Lewis is the absolute favourite again because he’s driving incredibly lately and his team does an incredible job,” Rosberg said.
“He’s one of the most successful F1 drivers of all time, one of the most successful sportsmen of all time.
“I think the odds are in his favour then Sebastian is the obvious challenger. But I would also, if I was a betting man, say Leclerc or Verstappen because I think both of them can be a big, big surprise this year.”
There has been some technical tweaks in the off-season, which includes teams having a new front wing design that F1 bosses hope will lead to tighter races.
Rosberg said: “There’s an huge opportunity for things to switch around this year. Maybe suddenly Red Bull is the team to beat, that’s possible.
“It’s really put everything back in time and everybody has to start from scratch again, it’s really exciting because nobody knows where the teams are going to be.”
Rosberg thinks the pressure may be on compatriot Vettel this season after finishing runner-up to Hamilton for a second successive year.
Vettel has been the undisputed main man at Ferrari since switching to the Italian marque four years ago but he has failed to add to the four world titles he won at Red Bull.
A series of uncharacteristic errors undermined his efforts last year and, with highly-rated Leclerc now his team-mate, Rosberg believes his former rival needs to deliver.
Rosberg added: “The Mercedes car was the best car in all those years, except maybe for the last time where it might have been equal.
“In all the years, Sebastian is still one of the best drivers out there, he just had a poor season last year and made a lot of mistakes but the team also made a lot of mistakes.
“It was a joint effort and they all did bad, that can happen, but they need to turn it around this year.
“If Sebastian does a season like last year then Leclerc will end up in front of him at the end of the year. Sebastian needs to nail it this year.
– The Laureus World Sports Awards celebrate the most remarkable men and women from the world of sport along with their achievements from the previous calendar year. The Awards also showcase the work of Laureus Sport for Good, a charity which uses the power of sport to end violence, discrimination and disadvantage.