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Teammates, frenemies on and off the F1 track: All in a Mercedes day

When they see Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg trading thinly veiled barbs at a press conference or attempting to run each other off the road in a tight turn, casual fans might wonder, “Hey, aren’t these guys on the same team?”

Well, yes. Kind of.

They do both drive and score tons of points for Mercedes, and they both answer to the same bosses. But the term “teammates” can have a very different meaning in Formula One than it does in football, basketball, baseball or even NASCAR.

“You look at different great rivalries and most of the time it’s within the team,” said Mario Andretti, who has been a champion in Formula One and almost every other motorsport. “NASCAR is a totally different animal. You’ve got all kinds of chances to be lucky. In F1 if you get put behind, you stay behind.”

Heading into this week’s U.S. Grand Prix, Hamilton, the reigning world champion, has been running behind Rosberg, thanks in part to the problems Hamilton has been having with a string of engines.

The bad luck has been such that Hamilton recently wondered aloud if it was perhaps more than misfortune — if there was someone or something that didn’t want him to win.

Raising the specter of sabotage was a little extreme even as racing rivalries go, but the Hamilton-Rosberg situation has been simmering for awhile.

“Are they going out to dinner, calling each other up? Absolutely not,” said Leigh Diffey, NBC Sports F1 play-by-play announcer. “They don’t speak much, there’s very little communication. It’s been cold, tense, almost toxic at times. But it’s interesting to watch the ebb and flow this year with their massive winning streaks.”

The Hamilton-Rosberg flare-ups aren’t an anomaly in F1 history, just the latest in a line of feuds that’s almost dictated by circumstance.

As this season shows, sometimes there’s not all that much real racing between teams. Whether it’s Red Bull a few years ago or Mercedes recently, one team can have a car that’s simply faster than the rest of the field. The main competition is within the team, if all things are equal.

Andretti said that wasn’t the case in 1978 when he won a world championship spiced with duels with teammate Ronnie Peterson. “I went to be No. 1. There was never two of anything. I wanted to have the best chassis, the best engine,” Andretti said. “Some teams lately can afford more. They can provide exactly the same equipment.”

In 2013, Red Bull had the fastest cars in the field at the Malaysian Grand Prix, and in that race Mark Webber was leading teammate Sebastian Vettel. The team told Vettel to settle for second, but Vettel disobeyed the order and passed a surprised Webber for the win.

Vettel later apologized, but then later backtracked and said the move was a payback for previous actions by Webber. The Australian dealt with their long-running feud in his biography labeling Vettel, among other things, a spoiled brat.

An even more acrimonious and famous rivalry was that between Brazilian Ayrton Senna and Frenchman Alain Prost. Senna became Prost’s McLaren teammate in 1988 and won the battle for that year’s world championship. A year later at the race in the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, Senna attempted to pass Prost in a chicane and Prost responded with a hard block that appeared to knock out both cars. But Senna was able to restart his car, navigate a run-off area and rejoin the race — only later to be disqualified for using that route. That handed the world championship to Prost, the pre-race leader.

A year later, at the same track, Senna returned the favor by slamming into Prost, who had moved on to Ferrari, in the first turn, knocking both cars out of the race. This time it was pre-race leader Senna who walked away with the world title.

Prior to the Senna-Prost dust-ups, the battle between Williams teammates Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet spiced up the F1 series in 1986-87. One of their most famous battles came in 1987 at Silverstone where Mansell made up 29 seconds in 28 laps and then executed a deft pass that included some bumping. Piquet left Williams after that season, but the next year granted an interview to the Brazilian version of “Playboy” when he said, “Mansell is argumentative, he’s rude and he’s got a really ugly wife.”

Not surprisingly Mansell and Prost mixed like oil and water when they both drove for Ferrari in 1990.

Andretti recalled his own racing experiences with his son, Michael, to demonstrate how competitive racing can be.

“Was I going to give him anything? Hell no. My wife was going crazy. Every overtaking we had had a little bit of drama,” Andretti said.

Andretti recalled a June 1986 Indy-car race in which he nipped Michael at the finish line. After the race Michael said, “I started running out of gas the last two laps. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.”

“I beat him. Was he pissed? Yeah,” Andretti said. “It’s high stakes and everyone looks out for himself.”

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