On his F1 debut at the Bahrain GP in 2006, Nico Rosberg set the fastest lap and seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of his father, 1982 World Champion Keke Rosberg. Yesterday that destiny was realised when, 34 years later, Nico became the 2016 World Champion.
The words destined and destiny have been chosen ironically. There was nothing fatalistic about Nico’s pursuit and ultimate achievement of his WDC. Quite the opposite, it has been an extremely hard slog for more than a decade, one that would have broken the spirit of many in the sport. It has required dedication, commitment and mental fortitude rarely seen.
The early years at Williams were difficult. The team was a shadow of the one with which his father had won a World Championship, and which dominated in the early 1990s. The cost of competing in F1 had exploded with manufacturer teams and Red Bull spending upwards of €300 million a year. Even if they started the season well, Williams did not have the money to compete in the development race across the season. Reliability issues dogged them and points finishes were the goal.
It is hard for a driver to stand out in those circumstances. Beating a teammate can be challenging with intermittent problems, and nobody remembers that it was car failure that cost the results. As a team drops back down the grid, they don’t attract the high caliber drivers so the yardstick by which Nico was measured was also less impressive. Whatever buzz that was around him after his debut slowly faded, especially as drivers such as Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel entered the sport and set it on fire.
The opportunity to join Mercedes was a golden one as Nico was to be with the team from the beginning and participate in their development. It helped that his teammate was the returning Michael Schumacher and that he resoundingly beat him. However so much of the focus was on Michael no longer being the driver he had been that it did not do as much for Nico’s reputation as it otherwise could have.
Then, after helping build the team, Nico faced his greatest challenge: Lewis Hamilton became his teammate. Lewis was not just a World Champion and regarded as one of the best drivers on the grid, he is someone who makes himself the centre of attention. Their careers had also been entwined since they were children. As Nico said in the post race press conference, “It feels like I’ve been racing Lewis forever……and he has always managed to edge me out”. This trend continued, as Lewis catapulted to back to back world titles in 2014 and 2015.
The potential for Nico to have his spirit broken by this was enormous. Lewis had beaten him twice again, to two world titles no less, in a team that Nico had been with for years. Lewis was also a superstar, a celebrity both within and outside the sport, and a difficult and volatile character to be around. The pressure of having to deal with that, for Nico to keep believing in himself and keep fighting, would have been immense. Drivers have been irreparably emotionally damaged by much less – look at Mark Webber at Red Bull; Rubens Barrichello and Felipe Massa at Ferrari. If anything, one would have expected Nico to come into 2016 at his weakest, resigned to playing second fiddle to Lewis once again.
Instead the 2016 Nico Rosberg was the best we have seen. He was confident and determined from the outset, winning the first four races. When things weren’t going his way he focused on damage limitation, maximising his finishing position. He gave no quarter in the clash with Lewis at the start of the Spanish GP and any questions about his ‘killer instinct’ were firmly resolved when he barged past Max Verstappen at the German GP. He received a penalty for his move, but that only cemented evidence of his fire. Then after Lewis’s fight back in the middle of the season Nico emerged from the summer break fighting and drove to beautifully crafted and controlled victories in several races, setting up a lead he only had to preserve. In the final four races he focused on that with the sort of calculated tactical precision for which Alain Prost and Fernando Alonso are lauded.
All of Nico’s acquired resilience and courage was called into play in the final race in Abu Dhabi. Knowing his only chance at the World Title was to win and have Nico finish lower than third, Lewis applied his own tactics, backing Nico into the Red Bulls and Ferraris in the hope that he would make a mistake or be overtaken. From the moment the lights went out it was breathtakingly tense, Nico sandwiched between Lewis and Kimi Raikkonen, with Max Verstappen (who had spun on the opening lap) fighting back through the field and also likely to come into play after the leaders pitted, due to their slower than usual pace. Sure enough, with the drivers being so close on track, Nico’s first pit stop was delayed as he waited for Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari coming down the pit lane, and he emerged behind Max.
If there was any driver Nico did not want to be battling with a world championship on the line it was “crazy Max”, who has been the subject of intense debate for his aggressive and borderline-acceptable moves throughout the year. Nico had as much chance of a race damaging incident as he did anything else, the one thing he couldn’t afford. And yet, as Max stayed out on his supersoft tyres that were lasting well, Nico’s WDC came to look dependent on him finding a way past, on a circuit where it is also difficult to overtake. But make it happen he did. On receiving instructions from his engineer that it was “critical to pass” he launched down the inside under braking, forcing his way through on the very edge of contact. Max came back, they tussled and nearly contacted again, but Nico held his nerve and held firm. He was through, with a brave and decisive move that should have put beyond any doubt his deservedness of being World Champion.
He remained in second, tucked neatly under Lewis’s wing, through the second round of stops. But it was always in the background that Lewis would back him up into the pursuing drivers. As the laps wound down, Nico was faced with Max, ready and willing for a fight, and a fast charging Seb who was sizing his way through on new supersoft tyres. The gap between Nico and Max was rarely more than a second and then when Seb got to third, he stayed within metres, the gap barely 0.3, at one point nearly colliding with Nico’s rear wing. Lap after lap Nico had to draw on every ounce of his skill and strength to manage his position between the unpredictably slow Lewis and the feisty drivers behind. It was hell to watch; unimaginable, “horrible” intensity in the car.
When Nico finally crossed the line in second, almost in line with Seb, there could be no doubt that he had earned his World Title. Over the course of the season he demonstrated every skill necessary to be a world champion – driving skill, racing instinct, fire, grit, tactical nonce and extraordinary mental strength – all of which were on display in the final race.
Though Bernie Ecclestone appears to think otherwise, Nico will make a wonderful World Champion and ambassador for F1. His story is special, becoming only the second son to emulate his father, after Damon Hill. He fought his greatest rival for nearly two decades, faced him in a highly charged pressure-cooker of a situation, came back from being two down from the count, and emerged victorious, a task that many would have said was insurmountable.
He may be somewhat introverted, but he is intelligent, interesting and thoughtful in his comments, giving him the capacity to reach and inspire a different audience of the sport. His suggestion on the radio in Abu Dhabi that if Lewis wanted to drive so slowly he [Nico] could go through and then give Lewis the place back at the end was both entertaining and an insight into how clever and composed he is, an enjoyably stark contrast to the whining and shrieking of most drivers’ radio transmissions. And let’s not forget his intellectual several lap debate with Ross Brawn during the Malaysian GP in 2013 about the Mercedes team’s orders, overshadowed at the time by the raucous and public Red Bull Multi-21 spat.
He always makes the effort to connect with the fans, thanking and speaking to them (usually in their own language). He exemplifies professionalism, respect and class in both victory and defeat and shows that you don’t have to be an egomaniacal entitled ass to be the winner. His genuine emotion and joy upon winning the World Title were touching, as was his acknowledgement of his family’s support. And the hard work, dedication, dignity and strength of character he displayed to achieve his goal makes him one of the best role models the sport has seen in a long time.
This is a journey, a victory and a person F1 should celebrate. Congratulations Nico Rosberg, 2016 F1 World Champion.
And, of course, #KeepFightingMichael. I am sure Nico’s WDC would bring a smile to your face.