THIS IS NICO ROSBERG
A little under 12 months ago Nico Rosberg won the world championship and then abruptly announced his departure from the sport before he’d even collected his trophy. He’s been somewhat elusive ever since, but now, speaking exclusively to F1 Racing, Rosberg
with more than a hint of reverence, Nico Rosberg reaches out to touch his championship-winning W07 Hybrid affectionately on the nose, then turns to regard the grand sweep that is the cavernous concrete inner sanctum of the Mercedesbenz Museum. Here, like pinned butterflies in a natural-history exhibit, but on a grander scale, the racing cars attached to the banked wall bear silent testament to an evolutionary line – in this case, one that stretches from chaindriven pre-war leviathans such as the 1909 Blitzen Benz to the latest hybrid Formula 1 machinery.
A large red crane stands ready to hoist Nico’s title-winner onto its final resting place – but not before its operators have posed for a selfie with both him and it. He obliges with the same easy charm that defused many a sticky moment during his driving career, as last year when he led a potentially hostile Monza crowd in an impromptu sing-along – in Italian – having led a Mercedes one-two that pegged their beloved Ferraris into third and fourth places.
He quit motor racing, seemingly without a backward glance, announcing his immediate retirement on the eve of collecting his championship trophy via the contemporary medium of choice for such communications: a video posted online. “For 25 years my dream was very clear,” he said. “It was to win the world championship. I’ve achieved that now and I wanted to thank you [the fans] for your part in it, because you kept me motivated, kept me pushing. But this year has been extremely tough as well. I gave it everything I had, I didn’t leave a stone unturned. And I’m not willing to do that again. And so, yeah, I’ve decided to call it a day – to stop racing.”
Over the course of 67 seconds we had the briefest of insights into the sacrifices – the sheer wretched effort – required not only to win the Formula 1 world championship, but to do so with one of the sport’s most intense and gifted competitors as your team-mate in equal machinery. “I hope I’ll see you again some time soon,” he said as a sign-off. And, with that, he by and large vanished from the scene, barring a few guest appearances at grands prix and a continuing trickle of lifestyle images on his immaculately curated social media feeds.
Perhaps he needed some time to ruminate on the magnitude of his achievement and to throw himself back into the responsibilities he’d had to set aside in his push to achieve that goal – fatherhood, for example.
The Nico we meet today exudes happiness, as if he has long since cast off the pressures that used to hound him. After one final diversion to walk-and-talk around the 1955 ex-stirling Moss/denis Jenkinson Mercedes 300 SLR for a video clip, he bounds over and pulls up a chair.
F1 Racing: Can we just say you look very happy – well, as happy as someone can be after a day of dealing with people like us.
Nico Rosberg: Yeah, but it’s different. I don’t have to be here today. It’s not part of my job – I wanted to come. It’s completely free choice, so it’s a pleasure to speak to you. [He offers a cheeky grin.] For me it’s a special day. Before this place was built, I used to come here with Lewis [Hamilton] for Stars & Cars [Mercedes’ annual motorsport celebration, held in the nearby stadium] because we were in the Mercedes Junior Programme. Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard were the heroes; we were the young dudes looking up to them, seeing all the Silver Arrows history, cars, everything, and Mika’s ’98 title-winning car joining the ranks. And now mine gets the next spot. Unbelievable.
F1R: You’ve been a little bit elusive, apart from a few things on social media. What is the life of a world champion like?
NR: It’s very exciting. There’s a lot going on. I have a lot of other passions in life, there’s no problems there. So I’m watching the racing because I love it, and I’m enjoying it. Then, something that I’ve been very interested in, is the way cars now are going to change our planet, with electric mobility, autonomous cars and then mobility drones. This is right around the corner. So I’m really looking into that, getting to know a lot of fascinating people, companies, startups and all that. So I’m enjoying the business angle.
Family-wise it’s an intense time because we’re expecting our second child [his daughter, Naila, was born shortly after this interview took place] so that’s taking quite a big chunk of my attention. I’m supporting Vivian a lot because our little one, Alaïa, is a bit out of control. She’s into her ‘terrible twos’.
So that’s probably the two pillars at the moment. It’s an exciting exploration period. I’m just very happy and loving it – and the freedom that I have over my calendar now. Of course it was awesome to be an F1 driver and I feel very, very
lucky calendar to have is set been by someone able to do else that, for but you, it’s the an whole intense season life. Your and everything. So it’s a different lifestyle now. It’s just very free and I can go where I want, do whatever I want. And I’m liking that. It feels great.
It’s clear from his expression that he’s very sincere about loving the control he now has over his own destiny. Let’s explore how clean the break was when he decided to quit, and how difficult he found the decision.
F1R: It’s very interesting, what you said about there being lots of things you’re passionate about, because for some people in Formula 1 the sport is the only thing they’re interested in. It’s what they live for and they find it very difficult to walk away.
NR: That’s true, yeah, for many people. But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing if you have a strong passion. For me, it’s nice that I have other passions I can enjoy just as much as racing. Where it’s a challenge as well, I can have that same thrill I had in racing – not exactly the same, but the way I do it, you know, still full-attack and wanting to win.
F1R: Do you see your business interests as moving away from motorsport, or are they complementary? Because your dad got involved in driver management, didn’t he?
NR: It all depends. I love racing, but it doesn’t have to be tomorrow. I will keep that door open. As I said, I love coming to races just to watch them, and I love watching the racing on TV. Young drivers, for example, I’ll keep my eyes open for, because it’s an opportunity also for me to re-live the emotions of winning through someone else. [Weeks after this interview, Nico announced that he would be joining Robert Kubica’s management team, to help with Kubica’s F1 comeback]
F1R: You made it into F1 at the relatively early age of 20, but you got into a team [Williams] who weren’t necessarily going to win, before you moved to Mercedes. Was there ever a time in your career when the world championship seemed out of reach or very distant on the horizon?
NR: For sure. All the time it was out of reach and in the distance, and not a reality. Up until four races from the end of last season when I was 33 points in the lead! Against Lewis it was always going to be tough because he’s such a great racer.
F1R: You’ve been quite open about how you changed your approach for 2016, that there were a lot of mental exercises, and that it was quite draining. NR: [Quick as a shot!] I didn’t say ‘draining’. ‘Intense’ maybe. But it was massive.
F1R: Intense, then. Did that inform your decision to retire at the end of the year? And did you tell anyone else beforehand? When Jackie Stewart decided to retire in 1973, he made up his mind well in advance, but didn’t even tell his wife because he didn’t want her to be counting down the races in case anything happened before then. NR: Well I can fully understand that. I didn’t make my mind up, but I had thought about it and I didn’t tell anybody. F1R: So when did you decide?
NR: On the grid in Abu Dhabi, before the race. I was trying to apply all my meditation skills, but nothing worked. What worked was the realisation that this might be my last race! I was like, ‘Oh damn, okay, let’s go and enjoy the driving – it might be the last time!’ That clarified all the stress.
F1R: How much did you enjoy that? Because at the end of that race you did look very, very drained, and it looked as if it was a race that had gone on about ten laps too long for you.
NR: No, I don’t understand why you would say that, because of course the race was massively intense, but by the time you saw me I don’t think I would have been looking drained because it was an absolute emotional thrill that I’d never experienced in my life before. For sure [he laughs] there were some tears, but that was just an emotional overflow of excitement. It was one of the most beautiful moments in my life. I wasn’t drained. F1R: Perhaps ‘relieved’ would have been a better word for it.
NR: Why ‘relieved’? I wouldn’t say that that word applies either. No, it was the excitement of achieving my childhood dream. ‘Relief’ is like you’ve been scared of something or whatever, you know? This wasn’t about fear, it was the positive thrill of having grabbed what I’d been aiming for.
We seem to have hit a vein of defensiveness, so perhaps it’s time for a change of direction. It’s a popular maxim in the paddock that you don’t leave F1 – it leaves you. Let’s test that.
F1R: How personally difficult for you was it to then make the decision to quit – and to follow it through? Because a lot of people find it very hard to retire. Look at Michael Schumacher.
NR: Yeah, through my mental training I’ve learned that for me it’s important to follow my instincts. I’ve learned to listen to my instincts more and more, because I think it’s a very powerful indication of what you should be doing – and of what you want to do. So that’s one thing. And I followed my instincts in this case by stopping.
It’s also about change, and putting yourself in unusual, difficult circumstances. That’s where you grow as a human being, you know? So I’ve learned to push myself into those situations, because I know that they are going to be amazing for my growth as a human being. And I’m experiencing that now, definitely. For over 20 years, every day was about racing, everything was planned, everything was just about winning the next race. That’s how I did it, as a total life dedication. There were no compromises: it was 110 per cent of the life goes into winning the next race.
And now that’s gone, so it takes a lot of adapting, but it’s an exciting period. And, as I said, exploring different avenues, and meeting people where you then discover interesting new thoughts on everything. F1R: Mario Andretti said when he retired he got really ill, and his doctor said, “Basically your body thinks that you’re dead.”
NR: Exactly. There are so many stories like that, and I can understand. It takes a lot of… what it comes down to is discipline. You need to understand that, because as a racing driver discipline was forced on me, almost, because I knew where I needed to be to win the world championship. But now
it’s a completely freestyle life, it also takes discipline to keep a healthy lifestyle and to keep happy. And that, I’ve learned, is not easy. My mental training helps a lot. I used to get up at eight o’clock in the morning to go running, so I do it now as well. It’s about keeping the rhythm going.
F1R: Also, you don’t want to be one of those world champions who turns up and can’t fit in their overalls!
NR: [Laughs] No, no! I’ve put on a couple of kilos, but that’s going to be a life-long fight anyway.
Now that we’ve abandoned the issue of post-abu Dhabi semantics, let’s broach another defining characteristic of Nico’s career – the corrosive effect of his rivalry with Lewis Hamilton on their friendship. F1R: Has your relationship changed with other people in F1 now that you’re no longer competing against them, particularly Lewis, because that relationship had a few bumps?
NR: I’m sure it will… [He takes a long, thoughtful pause as he carefully constructs a response before saying it.] Yes, because I’m not a competitor any more.
You win in any way you know, so it takes a bit of time to get used to that, or to get used to that thought, but I think with time it will change. And I can see that already with a couple of the drivers, because they don’t see me as opposition any more, which I’m not, and I never will be again.
Is this a tacit admission that he sometimes knowingly overstepped the mark in combat, as with the ‘mistake’ in qualifying at Monaco in 2015 and various other comingstogether with Hamilton on-track, and that he didn’t relish having to do it?
F1R: Has retirement changed your perspective on the sport, for instance when you’re watching on TV and you see the body language? Particularly things like the drivers’ parade where you see them hiding away with their headphones on, not interacting with each other? NR: Oh, I was aware of all that when I was involved… Something in the tone of his voice, and the way he allows his sentence to trail off, suggests to us that Nico is keen to embrace a change of subject. We’re not fishing for dirt here, so let’s oblige him.
F1R: With the change in F1’s ownership, was there any thought in your mind that perhaps you were missing out on an opportunity to be in at the start of something big…?
NR: No, I never had any thoughts or worries of missing out, because for me it was: ‘I have accomplished everything.’ There was nothing to miss out on. For me, it felt like exactly the right moment to move on, and for my life now it’s good that I have this massive high behind me, you know? It’s carrying me into my new life.
F1R: That’s a great way of looking at it, because Damon Hill said that when he became world champion, and achieved what he’d been aiming for, he didn’t know what to do next. And you seem to have got that worked out.
NR: No, I’m not that far. It’s just been ten months, it’s a life change. It’s not like I have everything 100 per cent worked out. So I’m exploring, I’m having fun, but do I have everything worked out? Not quite yet, no.
F1R: As the son of a world champion, when you were younger it seemed as if motor racing was the life mapped out for you. I met you when you were 13 or 14 and already Lewis’s teammate, at the Margutti Trophy in Parma. Neither of you won, and Lewis took it really badly, but you seemed to put the defeat behind you immediately. I assumed that maybe you didn’t want success as badly as Lewis did, so you’ve basically spent the past 20 years proving people like me wrong. Do you feel that people may have underestimated you because you’re the son of a world champion…? NR: When I was growing up, I learned that there will always be two different opinions. There are always going to be the people who think that you’re doing a great job and there are always going to be those who doubt it. That’s also how I learned to cope with that – it never was a focus in my mind anyway. Of course, though, there was a lot of prejudice – no, prejudgements… what’s the word?
NR: Preconceptions. It’s amazing – I grew up in a wealthy background and my dad is a Formula 1 world champion, so it’s unbelievable how many people I’ve had to convince that I actually am quite a normal guy who’s dedicated his life to the mission of becoming world champion. F1R: A lot of them would have written that you were a wanker if you hadn’t! NR: [Laughing] We’ve already covered that base, I think!
F1R: Just to elaborate on the subject of proving yourself, how tough was it to move into Mercedes, which was basically Michael Schumacher’s team when he made his comeback?
NR: Yeah, it made for some difficult moments of course, because he comes in and it’s like God walking through the door. Really. Every time he walked in, all the engineers – metaphorically speaking – stopped what they were doing and admired him.
And then the first strategy meetings. Only Michael is addressed. I’m sitting right next to him and I’m hardly looked at, even if I was sixth on the grid and he’s 12th. It was those moments that were tough to digest initially. I hadn’t even won a race when I drove for Mercedes. And he was a seven-time world champion, so you can imagine the difference there.
But I’m thankful because the team allowed me to gain respect, and they were open-minded enough to really discover ‘Okay, this guy actually knows how to drive a race car, and he’s not that dumb’ [he laughs again]. So I was able to grow nicely in the team and I’m thankful for that. And then of course Lewis came in. By that time I’d won only one race [China 2012] and he was the big world champion, the future superstar or whatever. So again I had that situation, with both him and the team being British, where it felt as if I had to establish myself and gain the respect from everybody again, and find a strong position in the team as well. But again there, I feel that they really allowed me to do that and I was able to come to a level with Lewis, even in the team internally, which was a great feeling and great to see.
F1R: You make a very interesting point, because Nelson Piquet told us that when he was at Williams he felt he wasn’t getting equal treatment, because he was a foreigner in a British team and he had a British team-mate. Was that just an impression that you had, one that you subsequently dismissed?
NR: Of course there is that. The Brits are for the Brits and the Germans are for the Germans. For sure there is that. But I really didn’t see that in the team. They were very supportive of me – everybody throughout the whole factory. So that made it all the more special.
say In one February more thank I went you, by just because to do I a hadn’t lap of gone the factory, to see them just to after everything my retirement. they’ve done I wanted for me. to show that I appreciated F1R: Will you carry on being an ambassador for Mercedes? NR: I don’t see it as a long-term thing. It’s not a passion, really. I guess you can understand…
There’s a twinkle in his eyes as he laughs again. Yes indeed, drivers really don’t enjoy the demands of being tethered to a marketing campaign. F1R: Well, as you said, you’ve got plenty of other irons in the fire. What about the F1 side? NR: That’s going to be – how do you say it nicely? – it’s nice to still be a part of the Mercedes family and the team, but at the moment I don’t see it as a long-term solution for me. Today, this is me coming personally – it’s my day, I could be on the beach if I wanted to, and I’m not being paid to be here – I want to be here because it’s special to see my car come into the legendary position.
That said, Nico has done a lot more than watch his car being mounted on a wall today – earlier, he did an extensive meet-’n’-greet with fans on the Mercedes campus.
F1R: So you’ve vacated your position at Mercedes – and it’s been very interesting to see that when Valtteri Bottas occupied it, he made a point of retaining your core team. Most new people, when they come in to a new team, they want to install their own people…
NR: But I think he was smarter than that, because those people are pretty damn good. It was a clever move not to try to change anything there. F1R: Is F1 such a marginal-gains sport now that you have to pay attention to small details like that?
NR: Every single detail counts. Look, in the summer break last year I decided to stop cycling because the leg muscles are among the heaviest things on your body. I lost 1kg as a result that August. We came back, and three races later it was the Japanese Grand Prix. One kilo of body weight is 0.04 of a second per lap when the car is at the weight limit. I was on pole at Suzuka by 0.03 seconds.
My smaller leg muscles got me on pole, and that messed with Lewis’s head, so he messed up the start. I finished first, he finished third, and I had the points lead that I needed to be able to cruise home with second places. F1R: Sir Chris Hoy could have told you that cycling can make your legs quite chunky. NR: I met him recently, yeah, he still has legs like that! Unbelievable. So I asked him for some advice on how to build up my leg muscles again. F1R: Well you can now, can’t you? NR: I am doing it, for sure, big time. F1R: He’s been racing cars recently. Did he ask for any tips? NR: Ha ha! No, he didn’t. Nico has kindly opted to take a later flight back to Nice so as to squeeze F1 Racing into today’s busy agenda but, even so, it’s wise not to gamble on the Stuttgart traffic, so we wrap up the interview on this note of levity. He pauses to scan through the photos – “Thanks. Nice work!” – gives a final glance around the banked wall of motoring greats, thanks us once again, and bids us farewell.
He’s off to continue the next chapter of his life – a narrative that exists, it seems, only in outline form at the moment. But he’s dug deep to win before – beating Michael Schumacher, and transforming himself into a more-than-unstoppable force to overcome the immovable object of racing excellence that is Lewis Hamilton – so whatever lies ahead, don’t bet against him excelling at it.
Our January ’06 front cover marked Nico’s arrival in F1. Back then he was better known as the son of Keke and still had much to prove
It was a long hard slog, but his mind training gave him the edge, and Nico finally got to hold the F1 drivers’ championship trophy aloft
Nico’s second cover shoot in August ‘06 passed into F1R folklore as former editor Matt Bishop and Mclaren’s Jo Ramírez held back the Monaco traffic for photographer Matthew Stylianou
By June 2013 Nico had proved himself at Mercedes, but now had a new challenge on his hands in the shape of Lewis Hamilton…
Our October ’15 cover focused on the rivalry between Lewis and Nico that had come to frame F1’s narrative
January 2017 and job done: after an intense fight for the title Nico achieved his dream at the season finale and announced his retirement days later