Consider just what Nico has achieved
With a few days’ perspective on Nico Rosberg’s soul-draining title win in Abu Dhabi (this being written less than a week after he crossed the line), his decision to quit F1 “at the top of his mountain” makes sense.
The Rosberg we saw in the hour after that most agonisingly intense race was a spent human. Normally so sharp-witted, keeneyed and generally ‘up for it’, he was empty, grey, brimming with emotion, and totally, utterly finished. Just how ‘finished’ we didn’t quite appreciate that Abu Dhabi Sunday, but while his retirement announcement five days later was of course a bombshell, it’s not actually that much of a surprise.
Consider what he has achieved and what was required of him: he beat Lewis Hamilton in equal machinery. That is, as we note elsewhere in this issue, the toughest job in F1. For the record, Hamilton is now the most statistically successful British racing driver ever and he’s fast closing in on some standards: the pole record set by Michael Schumacher – 68 – is well within Lewis’s reach; he’s currently on 61. So his sheer speed, his talent for simply driving a racing car to its very limit at all times, under all conditions, has never been in question. Hamilton is also at the very top of his game: he finished 2016 with the most wins (ten) and the most poles (12). That level of brilliance is what Rosberg was up against – and he knew it.
Tellingly, then, it was Rosberg, not Hamilton, who topped the ‘fastest lap’ chart, with six ‘purple’ tours. Therein lies a clue as to Nico’s mission this season – it was all about maximising the opportunities presented at every race weekend to put himself in position to take the title. At the Brazilian GP, as he reveals in an extended interview on p24, that meant turning down his engine when he realised Hamilton was out of reach, to preserve more ‘oomph’ for Abu Dhabi. In Spain, where the pair infamously collided at Turn 4, that meant resorting to the ultimate gamesmanship of refusing to yield when he knew the track fight had been lost. On that day both men would go home early and pointless, but for Rosberg, who had won the first four grands prix of the year, ‘nilling’ his rival was a better result than finishing seven points down, had they finished one-two with Hamilton winning, as was likely.
“I brought a harder edge to my driving this year,” Rosberg told us later, having reflected on the bitter experience of losing both race and title at last year’s US GP, when he was swiped from the lead by a charging Hamilton. He resolved that would never happen again and it’s through that prism that we should view fraught moments in Spain, Austria, Malaysia (against Kimi Räikkönen) and Abu Dhabi (against Max Verstappen).
Better than Lewis? Maybe not. Capable of beating him over one last-gasp season? Manifestly, yes. And one day, maybe 50 years down the line, an older, greyer Nico Rosberg will light up a fat parejo, raise a glass of single malt in acknowledgement to his world champion dad and mutter: “Yep, that’ll do.”
Follow Anthony on Twitter: @Rowlinson_F1