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...

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS JAMES ROBERTS PIC­TURES THOMAS BUT­LER

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”

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