Nico Rosberg: Rivalry and Title Destiny
Nico Rosberg was in a difficult situation.
Being squeezed between Hamilton who was intentionally driving slowly and the chasing pack led by Vettel, the German began to worry.
He pleaded on the team radio for them to “consider doing something”.
As much as Mercedes tried, Hamilton wasn’t changing his strategy so it was down to Rosberg to defend his position in an effort to claim second.
This moment during the final race in Abu Dhabi epitomized Rosberg’s battles with Hamilton that peppered his racing career.
Except something was different this time. Rosberg finally came out ahead.
The Early Days
Rosberg claimed his maiden Formula 1 title at Abu Dhabi and in doing so secured a childhood dream that always seemed to be his destiny.
Nico was born in Germany just days after his father, Keke, won the 1985 Detroit Grand Prix.
In the idyllic setting of Monaco, where the Rosberg family moved soon after, he caught the racing bug. Among his earliest memories of Formula 1 was laying on the deck of a yacht in the harbour on a Sunday morning and being woken by the sound of McLaren’s Ayrton Senna racing through the tunnel.
But his first taste behind the wheel came at just 4 years of age in Ibiza where he steered a kart while his father used the peddles. By the age of 6 he was engrossed in the karting world although it wasn’t until a few years later – while watching his father race in the German Touring Car Masters series – that a young Nico decided he wanted to become a Formula 1 driver.
A Rivalry is Born
Despite his personal achievements, the story of Nico Rosberg will always be entwined with that of Lewis Hamilton’s.
The two young, ambitious drivers first became karting team-mates in 2000 and the pair were inseparable. Spending day and night at kart races across the world, they formed a unique bond due to their circumstances.
They even shared a hotel room that was the scene of many wrestling matches. “It was so competitive between us,” said Rosberg a few years ago. “It’s the same today.”
That competitiveness pervaded all aspects of their lives.
Back on a warm summer’s evening in Parma, Italy, in 2000 they were sitting across from each other in a pizza restaurant. Already given a pizza each, the waiter returns shortly after with a second for the young drivers. They look knowingly and then start eating the pizzas as quickly as they can.
“I remember often going out for dinner with Lewis and Nico,” said former Formula 1 and rally driver Robert Kubica, who raced against the pair in 2000.
“They would even have races to eat pizza, always eating two at a time.”
“There was always competition. They always wanted to win, to beat each other. But they didn’t fight. It was friendly competition. There was always laughing afterwards.”
“We had so much fun. We were friends. It was nice. We were normal kids.”
The competition went beyond eating pizza and karting. There was an incessant drive to be better than the other person.
“Probably the first bit of real competition we had was when Nico used to ride a unicycle everywhere,” said Hamilton.
“So I thought ‘I’ve got to learn to ride this unicycle. I’ve got to be better than him’. I spent all my time outside the go-kart learning to ride this unicycle.”
Taking The Next Step
Despite their similar hunger to drive and win, the two diverged in one aspect: Hamilton, coming from a more working class background, had to grind his way to success whereas Nico always had the help of his father’s profile.
“Thanks to my father and my name, it made it a little bit easier for me,” he said.
Rosberg secured a move to the German Formula BMW in 2002 and immediately made an impact scoring nine wins in 20 races to take the title.
His performances resulted in a move to drive for his father’s team in Formula 3 Euro Series. After claiming fourth in 2004, Nico was faced with a tough decision: accept a position at the Imperial College in London on their aeronautical engineering course, which would require him to quit racing, or continue in motorsport. Despite aeronautics being one of his passions, he rolled the dice and gambled on a dream, going on to accept a deal with the ART Grand Prix team in GP2 and winning the title.
The up-and-coming Rosberg capitalised on his success and landed a deal with Williams in 2006 to get his first chance at Formula 1. The occasion didn’t overwhelm the then 21-year old and he scored points on debut at the Bahrain Grand Prix after fighting his way through the field in a mediocre car to secure seventh.
Two years later, Rosberg landed his first podium finish. Joining him on the rostrum was, inevitably, Hamilton.
His strong form led to a deal with Mercedes from 2010 where he outperformed seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher over three seasons, scoring his first win at the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix. On Schumacher’s retirement, Hamilton joined Mercedes and the pair again became team-mates.
A Dream Come True
Few would argue that Hamilton and Rosberg take different approaches both on and off the track: Hamilton is a confident extrovert, intuitively talented with a burning desire to win at all costs, while Rosberg is smart, consistent and calculating.
For their first years at Mercedes, Rosberg played second fiddle to a dominant Hamilton as the Englishman went on to win the championship in 2014 and 2015. The competition between the two was always on show and their intense rivalry consistently played out on TV screens – almost coming to a climax with Rosberg’s terse reaction when Hamilton tossed him the second place cap after sealing the 2015 title in Austin.
It seemed that the same story would be written in 2016. But this year things were different.
Cracks appeared to show in Hamilton’s title campaign with a series of mechanical failures and poor starts giving Rosberg a 43-point lead early in the season. But Hamilton’s competitive nature wouldn’t let him give up on the fight and the Englishman mounted a rear-guard to take a series of wins while Rosberg focused on consistency to regularly accumulate some handy points.
Hamilton – driven to the end by a desire to win – played all his cards in the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi. Despite disobeying team orders and backing his team-mate into the chasing pack, this was Rosberg’s year to finish on top and finally claim the championship.
Soon after, the German unexpectedly announced his retirement from Formula 1.
“When I was six years old and started out, the dream was very clear: I wanted to become Formula One world champion and that’s what I pursued all along and it’s mission accomplished for me, I’ve done it. It’s a dream come true and now it’s on to other things, with family first. We’ll see what the future holds just following my heart.”
Although Rosberg did not tell the Mercedes team at the time, he knew that retirement was waiting when he crossed the finish line in Abu Dhabi.
“I knew when I won, yeah. I didn’t know if I had the courage, but here I am now and I’m very happy.”