How a week can change everything. Last week, Nico Rosberg headed into the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix knowing he only needed to finish third to secure his maiden world championship. Six days later, and he will never compete in a Formula One race again. Only Rosberg and those immediate to him will know the true reasons. His reasoning was simple on the face of it: “It has been my dream, my ‘one thing’ to become Formula One World Champion. And now I’ve made it.”
But behind the scenes, had Rosberg realised he might never be able to accomplish the same feat again? That with all the misfortune and engine troubles that Lewis Hamilton encountered throughout the year, he had been given the most perfect opportunity to climb his mountain, and he did not believe he could beat Hamilton in another championship?
Roman Grosjean was the first F1 driver to respond publically, applauding Rosberg for his bold decision. Whether this will be a view shared around the paddock is uncertain. Here is a driver at his pinnacle, and who left it behind, rather than challenge for another.
Regardless, next year will be different for Mercedes, as rule changes appear to reduce the incredible advantage they have over the other teams. Would a true competitor and worthy champion have wanted to stay on another year, and test himself again, against other teams, other drivers, other obstacles?
Such debate is in some ways futile. Rosberg is unlikely to lose sleep over any argument, and the simple fact of the matter is he is retiring and will now be allowed to spend more time with his wife and daughter.
Doubts may continue to linger over Rosberg’s worthiness of the title of champion. Though conspiracies of favouritism at Mercedes are undoubtedly far-fetched, the misfortune of Lewis Hamilton, regarded by many as the best driver in the world, has exacerbated such theories. But the final four races, all of which Hamilton won, demonstrated that Rosberg knew he only had to finish second in each race to secure the championship, and did all that was required. Such was the advantage of Mercedes over the other teams that he did not have to go hell for leather in each corner in qualifying, as Hamilton did. Nor did he have to push the car to the extremes in the race. From the green lights to the chequered flag, the mission was to bring the car back safe and in second, and Nico did that with aplomb.
For all the criticisms of his style of driving, Rosberg showed unbelievable desire and calm
As the season has shown us, a champion is made over the course of a year, not in a late, final surge. Hamilton was guilty of poor qualifying sessions, poor starts, and poor driving in several weekends. Rosberg showed consistency from his four victories in the first four races (the first driver to do so since Michael Schumacher in 2004) to his four second-places in the final four races. He may not have the resumé that Hamilton does in terms of overtakes, nor the innate skill and brilliant reckless abandon that Max Verstappen provided this year, but what he showed over the course of 2016 was that he has the power to grind out results and ensure the points kept ticking, even when Hamilton was in his groove. And when Hamilton made a mistake he was right there to capitalise. He did this in Italy, when Hamilton made a terrible start; in Baku, when Hamilton crashed in qualifying and he cruised to victory; and in Singapore when he drove superbly to beat his teammate to pole by 0.7 seconds, who could in turn only qualify in third.
Undoubtedly, Hamilton at times had a torrid time in the car. If one race went differently, perhaps the final outcome might be different. But mechanical failures are an essential element of racing, and one which all drivers are victims to.
For all the criticisms of his style of driving, Rosberg showed unbelievable desire and calm, up until the final race, when he kept his car in the balance, barely a second behind Hamilton, and barely a second in front of Vettel.
People may be confused over his decision to quit. It is hard to compare him now with the all-time greats – the like of Hamilton, Schumacher and Senna – drivers who as soon as they had won one championship, were back in the car, fighting, competing, and racing.
But as a worthy champion goes, Rosberg has fully deserved what he has achieved. Not many drivers, you think, are capable of going head-to-head with Hamilton and emerging victorious. Here is a man entirely satisfied with what he has accomplished, and no one can take it away from him.