The festive season marked a year since the newly crowned world champion Nico Rosberg dropped one of the biggest bombshells in F1 history. In announcing his retirement Rosberg appeared to many to cap-off the defining achievement of his career by exiting the sport for a quieter family life with his head held high. And yet his shock retirement sent out so many mixed messages that further confused the legacy of an already very complex character.
On paper, the loss of a driver, asterisks aside, who had the skill and ability to beat Lewis Hamilton over the course of the season is a galling loss. Surely the untimely loss of any one of a sport’s select elite dilutes the essential quality of the field? However, beyond inconveniencing two of his former teams by facilitating the promotion of Williams’ star driver, the tangible repercussions of Rosberg’s retirement were minimal, and it is difficult to recall more than a handful of occasions when the reigning champion’s name was mentioned in commentary. Indeed, if anything Nico’s exit contributed to a less acrimonious and more constructive internal environment within the champion squad.
F1 is not a sentimental sport. As a circus that boils down in its totality to numbers on a stopwatch and numbers on a balance sheet, the human factor can sometimes be lost in the relentless pursuit of better numbers. However, only the most icy-hearted cynic could honestly profess to not having missed Jenson Button’s effortless charisma and intrinsic likability in 2017. And whilst Button’s retirement was marked by a guard-of-honour in Abu Dhabi, a cameo in Monaco and forlorn outpourings from the fans on social media, Rosberg’s retirement was marked by an FIA press conference and much bafflement.
It was bafflement that would receive the typically pithy and eloquent touch of Martin Brundle at last January’s Autosport International show, saying “If you do get to the peak, enjoy the view and the jubilation of descent – don’t take the lift down or the first emergency exit! I don’t get it.” However, there is perhaps something coarse about the urge to judge what was a highly personal decision, especially when the man in question is one of the most calculated and decisive figures in the sport. Nico did not doubt that retirement was the best option for him and his family, so neither should we.
And yet, if Rosberg’s retirement has proven anything it was that we didn’t fully understand the man behind the visor. It would be difficult to think of another driver that would choose a life on the sidelines when he could be fighting off a rejoinder from his sworn nemesis. With a Finnish father, a German mother and a Monegasque upbringing, Rosberg’s nationalistic ambiguity already put him in an uphill battle in the popularity stakes. He would typically compound that with a rather guarded interview manner, and whilst there were flashes of a sharp wit and an affable personality, these glimpses were not enough to afford Nico much of a fanbase.
Happily, F1 isn’t a popularity contest and on-track Rosberg repeatedly staked his claim to be recognised among the very finest drivers in the sport. As Williams’ main man, Nico enjoyed one of the finest midfield careers of modern times, quite sensationally racking-up the fastest lap of the weekend in Monaco in 2008 at the wheel of his middling FW30. He was also an instrumental founding component of the Brackley squad that would turn into the modern Mercedes juggernaut, and didn’t for a moment allow the reputation of the most successful F1 driver of all time intimidate him. He welcomed Hamilton’s arrival at the team with similar confidence and was on level-pegging with the Brit for much of 2013.
For 2014, the hybrid era would catapult Mercedes’ dynamic duo into a private duel for the title, and whilst Hamilton finished on top, Rosberg exacted a surprising 12-7 defeat over Hamilton in qualifying, becoming the first of Lewis’ team-mates to eclipse him on Saturdays over the course of the season. Within the context of Hamilton’s imperious qualifying form in 2017, and as a man deserving of his reputation as one of the greatest qualifiers ever, the significance of this accolade truly cannot be understated.
It was significant also that for the first time Hamilton had a team-mate who could match him on his favourite tracks, with Nico collecting pole at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in 2014 and stole victories in Barcelona and Abu Dhabi a year later. Three consecutive victories for Rosberg at the ‘driver’s circuit’ that is Monaco was probably also a humbling experience for Lewis.
Nico’s critics may wish to denigrate his 2016 title triumph as a result of unreliability on Hamilton’s side of the garage, but a simple fact remains: the Nico Rosberg that hobbled into the 2015 US Grand Prix third in the standings (behind the Ferrari of Vettel) was not capable of beating Hamilton over a season no matter what the circumstances. Rosberg responded to his nemesis’ second title in a row with three victories from pole at the end of 2015.
Come 2016, those “sexy laps” that generally put Hamilton half a second down the road the previous year barely got his nose ahead in Bahrain, Austin and Interlagos. Whilst in 2015 Lewis found it all too easy to maintain or extend his practice margin over his teammate, for 2016 those seemingly one-sided weekends all too often saw Nico within touching distance come the end of qualifying or the race. Hamilton’s former monopoly on virtuoso weekends was also broken by prodigious efforts from Nico in Singapore and Japan.
The influence of these marginal performance gains on Nico’s side versus the infinite permutations that would have handed the title to Hamilton is a topic for the eternal abyss of internet comment threads, but this is undeniable: Nico Rosberg picked himself up and dusted himself off after two consecutive title defeats and found a new performance level in himself in a way that only a great sportsman can.
In the wake of his title, it was a shame that the Twittersphere was so easily whipped-up into an anti-Rosberg furore, even before he announced his retirement. Whilst the specifics of the 2016 title chase can easily mutate into an interminable and largely meaningless debate about Nico’s deservedness of that year’s crown, there can be no doubting Rosberg’s wider credentials as a worthy world champion. Versus champions with far sparser skillsets, and versus one the most intimidating all-rounders of all time, Rosberg’s rejuvenation in 2016 is among the finest accomplishments of modern times. Whether it was specifically meritorious of the 2016 crown is debatable, but it was certainly an achievement worthy of a world champion.
An athlete capable of a feat of such tenacity and gumption will always be a loss to a sport, even if there aren’t hordes of braying, tearful disciples to mark his retirement. Indeed, the sport perhaps unknowingly missed Rosberg’s uncanny knack for destabilizing the otherwise supreme Hamilton; Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari certainly did. If Valtteri Bottas cannot provide a more consistent challenge to Hamilton in 2018, the Brit’s ominous trajectory may soon see the sport more openly lamenting the loss of the quadruple champion’s only Kryptonite adversary.