On Friday the announcement of 2016 World Champion Nico Rosberg’s retirement from Formula 1 sent the motorsport community into meltdown. Until then we were all speculating on who would fill the remaining seats at Sauber and Manor, so it came completely out of the blue. While there are many theories as to why Rosberg has decided to leave the sport, I won’t be delving into those right now. Instead, I’m going to look back on his F1 career and hope to show why he is a worthy world champion and why he’ll be remembered very fondly in the sport.
Britney gets his big break
In 2005 Rosberg joined the GP2 series and promptly won the title in his first season, ahead of Heikki Kovalainen. Naturally, as he was GP2 champion, F1 teams were interested in the young German and his F1 call-up came courtesy of one of his father’s old teams, Williams. But sadly, Williams weren’t the force to be reckoned with like back in Keke’s day.
Nevertheless, he finished in the points on debut in Bahrain after a solid drive. However, that was a flash in the pan as Williams didn’t have a good car for 2006 and struggled to their worst constructors’ finish since 1978 (when they only ran one car). 2007 was a better year but it was in 2008 when he got his first standout results.
He took everybody by surprise to finish on the podium in Australia and finish in second in the first Singapore Grand Prix. The race around the Marina Bay that year was a bit dodgy but take nothing away from Rosberg’s performance, he was on it that weekend.
The following year he utterly destroyed his teammate, Kazuki Nakajima. While Nico didn’t achieve any more podiums, he was a regular in the points while his Japanese teammate failed to get a top 8 finish all season. The big teams came calling after seeing this.
7-time world champion? No problem
For 2010 Nico was given the unenviable task of partnering a returning Michael Schumacher at the re-branded Brawn team (now Mercedes). Going up against the most successful man in the sport’s history, albeit after a three-year hiatus, would be an impossible task, surely?
Well not so much…
He treated Schumacher like any other teammate, much like he treated his title-winning race as any other. This professional attitude is what I believe is his most impressive attribute, nothing seems to faze him. Even Lewis Hamilton (more on him later), seemed to respect the ex-Ferrari man too much in his first few races, giving him far too much room in China, for example.
The cars that he was given were better than the ones that Williams provided him with but not good enough to challenge for a championship in the three years that they had an all-German line-up. Regardless of how good or bad the car was the fact remains that Rosberg beat Schumacher in every season that they were teammates. Nobody else has ever managed that.
Many at the time, admittedly me as well, believed it was more Schumacher’s rustiness and old age rather than Nico’s brilliance. With hindsight, I’ve reversed my opinion.
During these years, he also got his first win, in China in 2012, by crossing the line a full 20 seconds ahead of second-placed Jenson Button. A huge margin! Was this a sign of things to come?
When Michael Schumacher retired for the second time in 2012 the door was open for another marquee signing by the German manufacturer and the 2008 World Champion, Lewis Hamilton, was the man they chose. It’s fair to say that the two were already well acquainted…
2013 was a much better year for Mercedes, their car was probably the fastest over one lap in the entire field for most of the season. However, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for the silver arrows as their car shredded their Pirelli rubber far worse than any other team and usually slid back during the races. This came to a head at the Spanish Grand Prix where the Mercedes drivers claimed the front row but finished in 6th and 12th through astronomical tyre wear.
Before the season started many expected Hamilton to wipe the floor with Rosberg and while he did beat him in the standings the British driver hardly humiliated him (Nico finished 6th compared with Lewis’ 4th).
What Mercedes needed to rise to the top of the sport was a big regulation change to start everything from scratch. 2014 brought such a change and Nico would finally have a car capable of great things.
The New era
2014 and the new V6-turbo hybrid machines arrived. Mercedes were very much the team to beat as their car had unrivalled speed and reliability. The championship could only realistically be won by one of the silver arrows. The drivers had courted with controversy in their last season (in Malaysia Rosberg asked to get past Hamilton but was shut down by Ross Brawn) but in 2014, with a title on the line, they couldn’t escape it.
Halfway through the season at the Hungarian Grand Prix the two Mercedes drivers were together on track but usually they weren’t in first and second. After a crazy race the Mercs were in third and fourth in the closing stages. Hamilton had sensationally driven through the field after starting from the pit lane while Rosberg was going much quicker than anybody else because of his fresh rubber. Rosberg again asked to get past to challenge Alonso and Ricciardo and his request was approved. But Hamilton didn’t play ball, a title was on the line, after all. This angered Rosberg and what happened after the summer break at Spa was gone down in infamy.
Rosberg got an amazing run on Hamilton going up the Kemmel straight and went for the overtake around the outside but he wasn’t far enough alongside to make his challenge stick. Hamilton retook his position on the racing line and when he turned left into the second part of the chicane his rear left collided with Rosberg’s front wing. Lewis had a puncture and would eventually be forced to retire with damage. Rosberg would go on to finish in second and face the media’s scrutiny.
There are many theories about what happened that day but I personally believe that Rosberg simply made a mistake. To put your car in that position only clip off a small part of your wing was very lucky, I highly doubt that it was deliberate.
At the next race in Italy Rosberg was leading but twice out-braked himself into the first chicane, handing lead and eventually the race to his teammate. Some claim that Rosberg gave up the place to Hamilton because of what happened in Belgium. I personally believe that’s a load of rubbish but we’ll never know for sure.
After Italy Rosberg had a 22-point lead over Hamilton but the British driver went on a rampage winning five of the last six races to win the championship at the final round in Abu Dhabi.
2015 was much the same for Mercedes, if anything their lead over the chasing pack was even larger than the previous year. Unfortunately for Nico, Lewis Hamilton was even better that year and he couldn’t compete. A mixture of bad luck and scintillating pace from Hamilton meant that the title was decided with three races to go.
Nico had tried his best over these last two years but he just wasn’t fast enough.
2016 would change all that, though.
Rosberg won the final three races of the season and while most saw it as Hamilton having nothing to race for, it was actually a sign of things to come.
Through a mixture of bad luck and poor starts for Hamilton, Rosberg relatively cruised to four wins in a row to assemble a huge 43-point lead by the time F1 arrived in Europe. The first lap at the circuit de Catalunya would cause a lot of controversy. Hamilton qualified on pole but Rosberg lead into the first corner, however, Nico had his engine in the wrong setting as was slow giving Lewis a chance to retake the lead.
Here we go again…
Rosberg moved over to defend his position, forcing Hamilton to run wide, lose grip on the grass and spear into his teammate, taking them both out. Did Rosberg mean to take Hamilton out? Was it just unlucky?
I really don’t know but my feeling at the time was that Nico meant it, perhaps not to take the both of them out but just to block his teammate’s line. What was said behind closed doors after will likely never be known (unless Lewis publishes that book he keeps hinting at). The rumours were wild, some claimed that Hamilton had handed his notice in, which would be incredible if it’s true.
The cloud hanging over Mercedes’ head from Spain found its way up the Mediterranean coast to Monaco as a deluged track made for a poor race for Nico. Daniel Ricciardo was streaking away and Rosberg was forced to let Hamilton go and chase after the Australian. Unlike Lewis two years ago, in Hungary, he obeyed the orders and allowed him through on the run up the hill to the casino. Nico slid back throughout the race and was almost lapped by Lewis (it should be noted that Rosberg had car issues all race). This misery was compounded when Hulkenberg passed him on the line to drop Rosberg down to seventh.
Lewis then went on another rampage, winning all but the European Grand Prix before the summer break and turning a 43-point deficit into a 19-point advantage.
But, of course, there was controversy along the way.
In Canada Hamilton got a poor start from pole (not for the first or last time) and Rosberg tried to get past around the outside but was forced off track and dropped to about tenth. What Hamilton did was dodgy, there is no doubt about that but Nico allowed himself to be in that vulnerable position. If he backed off, like he should’ve done in Japan in 2015, the damage to his race would’ve been limited.
Two races later, in Austria, Nico was leading but how he got there was controversial in itself. Nico was undoubtedly given a better strategy despite being in second and this going against Mercedes’ own guidelines. Lewis was furious and was absolutely flying on new tyres, almost breaking the racing lap record in the process. Going into the last lap he was all over the German and when Nico caught the apex of turn one too heavily this gave Lewis a chance going into two. Lewis ran it around the outside but Nico waited for his teammate to turn in before doing so himself and the two inevitably crashed again.
Rosberg lost his front wing and fell to fourth while Hamilton relatively cruised home for his first win in Austria. This was probably Nico’s worst moment in his career, I’d like to think that even the biggest Rosberg fan would admit that he was in the wrong here.
The summer break came and went with Nico working hard and spending time with his family and with Lewis traveling the world and it showed. Lewis wouldn’t win a race until the USGP in October and by then the damage was already done. Hamilton would win the last four races but four second places for Nico earned him the title he craved in Abu Dhabi.
Nico Rosberg surfs over his mechanics after winning the F1 title. Photo credit: CNN.com
Personally, I believe that Hamilton drove better than Nico during most of the races this season if you take away his starts. But what people seem to forget is that the start is a part of the Grand Prix (I know, it came as a surprise to me as well). At the end of the day, Nico has driven better this season than any other of his 11-year F1 career and the trophy says champion, not best driver.
Some are saying that he’s a coward and that he’s afraid to go up against Lewis again, but that sounds rather like sour grapes to me. Just two years ago, Jules Bianchi had a horrific accident that would ultimately end his life. No matter how safe the sport becomes there is always a risk of that happening again to any of the drivers. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that F1 drivers are humans, who have families and other interests aside from entertaining us.
And we must never forget that he’s an F1 world champion, he has achieved his ultimate goal.
So thank you Nico, thank for proving the doubters (and me) wrong time and time again. I hope you have a very nice retirement.