NICO ROSBERG PREVIEWS THE NEW F1 SEASON
What does the 2018 Formula 1 season hold for its main players? We asked 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg for his prophecies and he didn’t hold back...
The 2016 world champion gives his forthright views on former rivals
Nico Rosberg breezes into his Monaco office and immediately spots a bowl of red foil-wrapped packets. “What are these?” he says quizzically.
In his absence we’ve delivered twenty handmade fortune cookies, each containing a question related to the 2018 season, to his desk.
No longer constrained by the shackles of an F1 team’s PR machine, the 2016 world champion is uniquely qualified to deliver razor-sharp insights and can say exactly what he thinks – and we’re in for a treat. “This is a first for me,” he says. “To be grilled like this on my sport.”
There’s just two problems: “I’ve come straight from the dentist and the right side of my mouth is numb,” he says. “And how are we going to break these cookies without making a mess?”
Delight crosses Nico’s face as we offer him a table brush with which to banish crumbs; he unpeels the first packet and question within.
“I know someone who did,” he smiles. There’s absolutely no doubt in Nico’s mind that his former nemesis will win the season-opening Australian GP and the world championship this year. “It’s not what you want to hear, is it? And he’s very good at that track too.”
After starting 2017 in Ferrari’s shadow, Mercedes – and Lewis is particular – took advantage of the poor reliability suffered by Sebastian Vettel to win the world championship with two races to spare. With his knowledge of how Mercedes operate, Nico believes they’ll be unstoppable again in 2018 and that Lewis will claim a fifth drivers’ title.
“Ferrari started development of last year’s car earlier than Mercedes. They were very strong in the winter, but then they lost out through the year. That’s a worry for them. They need to pounce again this winter.
“But [Mercedes team boss] Toto [Wolff ] has made some further staff movements internally and with [technical director] James Allison bringing some fresh ideas and thinking, I don’t see how they are going to be beaten.”
If the challenge to Mercedes isn’t going to come from another team, the question is whether Lewis can be threatened internally, just as he was when Nico beat him to the championship in 2016. Rosberg’s advice to Valtteri Bottas is to seize on his team-mate’s weaknesses.
“Lewis would have off-weekends and moments of inconsistency,” he says. “Sometimes his weekend can be affected by how he arrives at the track. He can lose momentum in practice and be on the back foot. Valtteri needs to seize on those down moments and try to extend them – before he gets his flash of brilliance back.”
During Lewis and Nico’s intra-team fight in 2016, the competition was so brutal between the pair that it led to a poisonous atmosphere, something Wolff has described as “nuclear war”. Wolff has since stated that the arrival of the more outwardly placid Bottas has benefitted Lewis and the whole team, but Nico takes a different view.
“All I can say is that since 2014 [the start of the 1.6-litre hybrid era] no one came close to us. Now, suddenly, Ferrari was on a level with Mercedes and even leading the way for threequarters of last season. I know internally what level Lewis and I pushed each other to. It was ridiculous, such an extreme, close to perfection level, but the whole team benefitted from that – and we were untouchable. I would say it worked pretty well.”
Bottas admitted he under-performed in 2017 and, like Nico before him, was never 100 per cent happy with his seat, so if he has any chance of beating Lewis he’ll have to raise his game.
“Last year he got dropped into deep water and it led to inconsistency,” says Nico. “Now he needs to start being consistently close to Lewis, which he can do – he’s got the skills.
“The problem is Lewis is quite fast,” he adds with a fair degree of understatement. “He’s also one of the best of all time, so you need to push pretty hard to beat that. I think Valtteri is going to beat him more often than last year but not enough to win a championship.”
“THE PROBLEM IS LEWIS IS QUITE FAST. HE’S ALSO ONE OF THE BEST OF ALL TIME, SO YOU NEED TO PUSH PRETTY HARD TO BEAT THAT. I THINK VALTTERI IS GOING TO BEAT HIM MORE OFTEN THAN LAST YEAR BUT NOT ENOUGH TO WIN A CHAMPIONSHIP”
IS RED BULL THE WRONG PLACE TO BE?
If Ferrari had poor reliability in 2017, the situation wasn’t so grave as the failures that afflicted Red Bull. Brakes, battery, hydraulics and power unit problems all conspired against them, but there were some highs. Dan Ricciardo scored a memorable win in Baku and Max Verstappen took late-season victories in Malaysia and Mexico, wowing fans with his daredevil driving.
“Oh, he’s so good for the sport, isn’t he? He’s just awesome,” enthuses Nico. “If Max crashes out of a race even I’m disappointed, because from then on the race is just a little bit more boring. You know he’s just going to go for it and he’ll create opportunities. Look at Austin last year against Kimi [Räikkönen] – only Max would have gone for that [when he cut the inside of Turn 17 on the final lap for third, but was subsequently penalised]. There’s no other driver on the grid who would have even thought of trying a move there, let alone make it stick.”
A resurgent Red Bull with Max and Dan challenging for wins is something many would like to see in 2018, but will the team continue to be hampered by their power unit? With that in mind, Rosberg is surprised Verstappen committed to Red Bull (albeit with the incentive of a big-money deal) until the end of 2020.
“It was a strange decision because it’s not the best car, and the two teams with the best cars were rolling out the red carpet for him. So, it’s odd if all you want to do is win. He had all the cards in his hands and I don’t know what the convincing factor was? Why commit so quickly?
“I don’t see him being world champion at Red Bull because Mercedes are such an incredible powerhouse and Ferrari are up there too. Do Red Bull have any rising talents coming through their aerodynamics department? I know Adrian Newey isn’t working there full-time…”
Actually, they do. Having started in Red Bull’s CFD department, Craig Skinner was appointed chief aerodynamicist in January. Given their resource and the stability in the regulations you would expect Red Bull to close the gap in ’18. But will it be enough to convince Dan to stick around after his contract expires at the end of this year?
“It’s not an easy one for him,” says Rosberg. “He was the rising star, then this other, younger, rising star comes along and starts to put some pressure on him. Dan has the most to lose because he’s rated very highly and next year there are two faster teams with vacant seats.”
One of those is Mercedes, the other is Ferrari…
IS THIS KIMI RÄIKKÖNEN’S LAST YEAR IN F1?
There was a flash of brilliance during Monaco qualifying last season when Räikkönen threaded his Ferrari around the sinuous streets to secure the 17th pole position of his career (and his first since 2008). His mysterious shuffling down to second in the race said a lot about his position in the team and the focus on ‘number one’ Seb Vettel. But the fact that Kimi doesn’t consistently challenge his team-mate probably keeps the team dynamic – and Vettel – happy.
“Yes, but you start to lose performance when there is too much of a gap,” says Rosberg. “If he wants to stay on with Ferrari, then it’s up to him really. They can have their number one and two but he needs to be better than last year as he was a little too far off Vettel, on average.”
If Räikkönen does underperform, one of Ferrari’s options next season is the reigning F2 champion Charles Leclerc. Managed by Nicolas Todt, the 20-year old makes his debut this year with Sauber, who now carry Alfa Romeo branding and enjoy Ferrari technical support.
Leclerc not only showed great speed last year, he demonstrated immense fortitude in coping with the death of his father.
“It was impressive what he did and no one can imagine what he’s been through,” says Nico, who won the feeder championship (then GP2) himself in 2005. “He’s one of the next big hopes for the future. He deserves a seat in F1 and it should be possible for him to beat Marcus [Ericsson] in his first year, but would Ferrari put him in a race seat in 2019? They’ve never done something like that before. Are they going to start now?”
With Kimi as a dutiful, if reluctant, number two, Seb should be clear to take the fight to Mercedes. There is much at stake – if Hamilton does win, he’ll surpass Vettel’s four titles. Can Vettel suppress those fleeting moments of fury he sometimes displays, such as the Baku incident?
“That was down to too much self-confidence,” says Rosberg. “Because he always thinks the other guy must be at fault. It can’t be him that has made a mistake.
“I think he has too much self-belief, a bit like [Michael] Schumacher. In one way it’s a strength, because it gives you a really solid armour in that intense environment, but it can be a weakness since you think the other guy is always at fault and you don’t question yourself as much.”
“HE’S JUST AWESOME. IF MAX CRASHES OUT OF A RACE EVEN I’M DISAPPOINTED, BECAUSE FROM THEN ON THE RACE IS JUST A LITTLE BIT MORE BORING. YOU JUST KNOW HE’S GOING TO GO FOR IT AND HE’LL CREATE OPPORTUNITIES.”
WHO WILL WIN F1’S FIERCEST RIVALRIES?
The most important thing a team will instruct their driver to do is not to collide with their team-mate. Constructors’ championship points, which ultimately lead to prize money, are too valuable to a Formula 1 team – especially in the oh-so-tight midfield. So when Force India’s Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon collided with each other, not once, not twice, but at three separate races last year (Baku, Montréal and Spa) serious disciplinary action had to follow.
Rosberg has been there. He remembers all too well the aftermath of his coming-together with his Mercedes team-mate on the opening lap of the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix.
“Oh, let me tell you, it was intense and there were serious consequences for further ‘misdoings’… but what can Force India do to stop them hitting each other again? I suppose they could impose team orders all year. At Mercedes, with me and Lewis, they could never have done that because it would have been the biggest shitstorm in the world – but Force India are not racing for wins.
“Esteban is a Mercedes-backed driver, but if he wants to impress to have a chance at the vacant 2019 seat then he really needs to beat Sergio clearly this year. The problem is that Sergio is pretty good – he’s better than people give him credit for.”
How Force India handle their drivers this year is something we put to their chief operating officer Otmar Szafnauer elsewhere in this issue [see ‘Some Like It Hot’ on page 68] but there could just as equally be a highly fraught and ultra-competitive intra-team tussle down at Renault in 2018.
When Carlos Sainz replaced Jolyon Palmer from Austin onwards last year, Nico Hülkenberg realised he had a fight on his hands. The advantage that he held over Palmer in qualifying over the first 16 races was an average
of 1.1 seconds – against Sainz it was just 0.2. Remarkably, since he made his debut in 2010, the Hulk hasn’t yet scored a podium finish.
“But there’s a reason for that, isn’t there?” asserts the 2016 champ. “It’s not just by coincidence. What Nico hasn’t done quite so well is to get all the team bosses on his side and maybe that’s the thing that’s stopped him from getting a top drive.
“He needs to look at his approach, work ethic and character – they’re called social skills aren’t they? I don’t want to criticize him, he’s an awesome driver and actually it will be very close between him and Carlos. Last year I would have said, easy, Nico will have the upper hand, but at the final four races last year Carlos was very impressive so I think it’s going to be a close call.”
SHOULD WILLIAMS RACE ROBERT KUBICA?
Rosberg has a vested interest here, because he has been actively helping Kubica to try to secure a race seat, seven years after the horrific rally accident that nearly cost the Pole his life and reduced the mobility in his right arm.
Kubica and Sergey Sirotkin both did the end-of-season Abu Dhabi test and, after sifting through the data, Williams decided to give Sirotkin the race seat and retain Kubica as a test and reserve driver. The line-up of Sirotkin and Lance Stroll ensures Williams have the youngest pairing on the grid, with a combined age of 41.
“The inexperience is going to make it a bit of an uphill struggle for those guys,” says Nico, “although you’ve got to remember that Sirotkin did well at the Abu Dhabi test and he knows how to drive a racing car. But Robert is going to help with setup. It was a great experience working
with him – and massive respect for his fight, it’s so impressive and the story can go even further.”
In one of the fortune cookies we’ve planted a little joke, but the smiling emoji we placed at the end of the question defeated the office printer. Nico holds the question up to our photographer and pulls a face. It reads: ‘Stroll and Sirotkin: Williams’ worst ever driving pairing since Rosberg & Nakajima?’
“That’s not nice, but I forgive you,” he says. The concern for Williams is that their inexperienced driver line-up won’t necessarily guarantee points finishes to help towards the all-important constructors’ championship prize money – but both drivers bring their own cash.
“[Chief technical officer] Paddy [Lowe] lives and breathes those calculations and this is the choice they’ve made based on them. I know that whatever cash Sirotkin is bringing, that is a lot of lap time when you put that into development.
“They also have Dirk de Beer working on aero now and he designed the best aerodynamics in F1 last year [with the 2017 Ferrari], so he could be the key to them having a good year. I hope they can move forward.”
WILL MCLAREN RETURN TO THE PODIUM?
Fernando Alonso has a diary that is bursting at the seams. In 17 weekends between 8 April and 29 July, he’s only going to have three when he’s not at the wheel of a Mclaren-renault F1 car or a Toyota LMP1 sportscar. Alonso, who has already competed in the Daytona 24 Hours this year, is dovetailing F1 with the World Endurance Championship. In Brazil last year, Mclaren team boss Eric Boullier memorably joked: “If he could, he would race 52 weekends a year.”
“Yes, but he’s doing races like the Indy 500 and Le Mans because he has no hope in F1,” says Rosberg. “So he has to look at other things to satisfy his will of winning. As the Formula 1 world championship isn’t an option, the next best challenge for him is to be the best allrounder in the world.”
The past three years have been miserable for everyone concerned with both Mclaren and Honda, but from 2018 the Japanese manufacturer unites with Toro Rosso, while Mclaren have secured a new engine supply deal with Renault.
“As a fan it would have been amazing to see Mclaren-honda win again, but it’s been one of the disasters of the past few years,” says Rosberg. “Why did it fail? I just think that Honda underestimated the challenge and didn’t have the necessary skill set or infrastructure. I do hope that they can finally make good progress with Toro Rosso.
“But will Fernando Alonso win a grand prix in 2018? No. Will he finish on the podium?”after a long pause, Nico decides that maybe Fernando will. “One third place, why not?” While Rosberg has spent a leisurely afternoon talking through every question, he’s placed the pieces of paper neatly in order on his desk and carefully decanted the crumbs into a single heap. He’s also seasoned his responses with opinions on a wide range of subjects. On the halo he says: “I don’t like the look of it, but would have loved to race with it.” Of F1’s new owners, Liberty Media, he adds: “They are smart people and are refreshing and rethinking everything.”
Finally, the last question is directed at him. He breaks open the cookie and reads it aloud. ‘Lewis and Valtteri crash into each other and they break a toe each. Toto calls. What do you say?’
“I say, ‘I’m sorry, but I’ve already signed for Ferrari…’”
“HE [FERNANDO] HAS TO LOOK AT OTHER THINGS TO SATISFY HIS WILL OF WINNING. AS THE FORMULA 1 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP ISN’T AN OPTION, THE NEXT BEST CHALLENGE FOR HIM IS TO BE THE BEST ALL-ROUNDER IN THE WORLD”