In Defence Of Nico Rosberg
Branded 'lucky' by some. By others, a 'coward'. I just don't buy it...
I should preface this article by saying that no multi-millionaire F1 world champion who grew up in Monte-Carlo needs my sympathy, especially someone with such good hair. But in 2020, more than ever, I firmly believe that we need to take a second look at what Nico brought to Formula One in his decade in the sport.
After a thrilling Italian Grand Prix last time out in Monza, you could be forgiven for forgetting how dull the race was shaping up to be, before Leclerc finally put the Tifosi out of their misery and crashed the sole remaining Ferrari, scattering the order of the field like you would local 'Parmigiano' cheese. You could also be forgiven for forgetting the pattern this whole season is quickly falling into: Hamilton in the lead, strolling off into the sunset with a distant Valtteri Bottas rarely looking like mounting a challenge. Try as he might, not even "miracle' Max Verstappen can perform miracles all the time in his inferior Red Bull, and with everyone else essentially in a different Formula, the responsibility falls squarely on Bottas' shoulders to make this season anything other than one long Hamilton victory-lap. But I just don't think the Finn's got it in him.
And so I've found myself becoming misty eyed of late- pining for those heady days when Hamilton didn't always have it his own way, before pandemics and orange-faced lunatics ruled the world. I was pining for Nico Rosberg.
Of course, you'd have to go back to before the Pyramids were built to find a time when Mercedes weren't pummelling the grid into submission, so not everything was that different when Nico was around, just a few years ago. But there was something different that we don't have right now: a palpable sense of jeopardy before every Grand Prix. Could the guileful German find a way to outsmart one of the greatest talents ever seen in F1? Could he snatch a sneaky pole? Steal a wily win? And that was just on the track. The off-circuit drama made an Eastender's Christmas Special play out like an episode of Last of The Summer Wine. How much further would their childhood friendship implode? Who'd be playing mind-games? Under-their-breath digs in packed press conferences? And most exciting of all, would someone throw another cap?! I truly miss those years; and in the midst of a season like this one, one thing is clear: we need Nico Rosberg more than ever.
'He doesn't deserve his title...'
Nobody would deny that for three seasons out of the four they were both at Mercedes, Lewis and Nico had unequivocally the best car. In his title winning year of '16, Rosberg had favourable reliability too. Does that mean we should demand he hand back his trophy and scrub his name out of the history books? If we did, then Mansell in '92, Button '09, Hamilton '20 (too soon?!) - the list goes on and on and on - should all suffer the same fate. Clearly, he deserves his crown.
The fact remains, Rosberg was a very fast racing driver. I'm not for one minute saying he was as quick over a single lap as Hamilton- few, if any have been, but in 2016 he put together an efficient and consistent enough campaign to take advantage of Hamilton's misfortune to win the title. He had the fortune of having the best car, but the misfortune of being partnered with Hamilton and it was this double-edged sword that almost certainly denied him more world titles. You have to ask yourself how many more titles would he have won had he been partnered the perfectly adequate Bottas...
In the 4 years they shared a garage, Nico ran Lewis closer than any teammate the Brit has ever had (except for Mr. Alonso), winning 22 races to Hamilton's 32, qualifying ahead of Lewis 36 times, to Hamilton's 42 and celebrating 50 podiums to his 55. Beaten, yes. But dominated? Absolutely not. 'Yes...', I hear you cry, '...but in 2016 Hamilton suffered far more retirements than Nico Rosberg...' You're right, that's a fact. But here's another one: over the three previous seasons they were teammates at Mercedes, Rosberg retired eight times from mechanical failures, Hamilton only three. F1 Championships are so often decided by mechanical failures, even with today's impressively low attrition rates. The point is this: any of those previous titles could have swung in Rosberg's favour but didn't. So for him to win his only title in the way he did seems fair enough to me.
In his earlier career, he won the Formula BMW series, won the GP2 series and scored points and a fastest lap on his F1 debut. His second race? Third on the grid- in a Williams that had no right to be there. His points total against Schumacher (2010-12), speaks to me more of the talent Rosberg showed than it does of the faded powers of a legend. Yes, if I were a football commentator I'd probably say that Schumi had 'lost half-a-yard' by the time of his comeback, but if we're re-evaluating Rosberg on the back of his performances against Hamilton, then we have to hold Schumacher's performances against his countryman up to the light and say perhaps that Rosberg was underrated back then, and is possibly even still.
Rosberg has rightly been accused of playing some dirty tricks on Hamilton over the years- some I'm not even going to try and defend, except to say that he must have learnt a lot of his skullduggery from the masters of the genre. Schumi, Alonso, Senna, they all did it, yet the court of public opinion seems to excuse their misdemeanours as prime examples of their determination and commitment to win. For Rosberg, his 'Hand Of God' moments have been chalked down to desperation or a weakness of character. Some moves he pulled were undoubtedly unsportsmanlike: Monaco Qualifying '14, some were clumsy self defence: Red Bull Ring '16, and others just unfortunate racing incidents: Spa '14, Spain '16. But none were anything like the blatant, borderline psychopathic cheating Senna and Schumacher were capable of.
Photograph: Zak Mauger/Lat/Rex/Shutterstock
'A Pyrric Victory...'
Watching Nico over his last couple of seasons at Mercedes, he seemed to age a decade. He looked tired, sometimes answering the press curtly and with considerable ire. By the end of his final season in 2016, he was half-broken, burnt out. Clearly, going toe-to-toe with the mercurial talent of Hamilton was taking its toll. He started taking drastic measures, from losing as much weight as he could from himself, to even cutting up his socks, he says, "to try and lose 10 grams...It’s all in the details. Massive attention to detail to win in F1 is required, at least to beat Lewis anyway...” He knew it was necessary, but one gets the distinct impression that kind of obsession is not sustainable, especially when Lewis is able to beat you most of the time, probably even while still wearing his gold chains.
So when Nico won the title in '16 and then promptly retired, it didn't come as too much of a shock to me. That combination of factors (reliability, luck, marginal gains) were unlikely to happen again and anyway, he had achieved his childhood ambition. As a family man too, I doubt he felt he could subject his wife and child to another few years of blinkered obsession and frayed nerves, whilst also (I'm projecting now) perhaps realising there actually is 'more to life than driving round in circles', as Niki Lauda once famously said. I fully understand his decision and just don't buy the narrative that he was 'too scared' to defend his title. Personally, I don't believe anyone could muster that kind of herculean effort twice. Just watch the interview Nico gave just minutes after his title-clinching drive in Abu Dhabi; his whole being seemed to metamorphose from tense, haggard and hunched-over to youthful and fizzing with energy. What a difference 300km makes. It was only when the weight was lifted from his shoulders that you saw how heavy it must have been on him.
Just in case some Hamilton fans don't think I've stressed Lewis's supremacy enough, Nico's retirement says far less about his 'cowardice' or his lack of perceived 'hunger' to keep winning and more about the fact that Lewis is operating on such a high level that his team-mate was flirting with a mental-breakdown, in order just to beat him once. But how enthralling it was to see that struggle. It was less David and Goliath, more human-being versus Alien. And for all the other billions of humans out there (hi, by the way), the fascination lay in seeing how far a mere mortal like us could push themselves in order to prevail against the odds.
King Pyrrus won a battle against the mighty Roman Army in b.c 279. A great success it might have appeared on the surface, but he lost most of his high-ranking officers and a devastating amount of troops. It's written he said that another similar victory would ruin him. A victory that takes such a heavy toll that it almost feels like a defeat is therefore called a 'Pyrric Victory'. I almost think we should rename it 'Rosbergian'- it was that close to breaking him. Four years on from his 'Rosbergian' Victory, it's clear to me that he had no choice but to retire. You have to respect that.
So, whether you're a fan of the Blonde-Haired Assassin or not, I think we all can agree that 2020 would be infinitely more entertaining if Nico Rosberg was competing for his old team once again- pushing Hamilton to even greater heights, trading pole positions and pulling unlikely victories out of the bag. Come on Valtteri, stop trying to be Bottas 3.0 and start trying to be a bit more Rosberg. We need him more than ever before.