"I had a hunch about the Mercedes thing"

He signed for one team but has ended up driving for another. Yet the Brawn name switch was no great surprise to Nico Rosberg, who had his fingers crossed about the three-pointed star
By Adam Cooper

“Am I aware of it?” says Nico Rosberg when I ask about the motor sporting legacy of Mercedes-Benz. “Yes I am. It is definitely a big thing in terms of media image and everything. It’s great. I’m very happy to be part of it, and also to be the first German in 54 years or something. I don’t even remember his name. It’s not Hans Herrmann, it’s some other person, spelled with a K…”

Rosberg can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing the name of Karl Kling, and after all few of his contemporaries are noted for a great interest in or knowledge of the past. But now he has a chance to write his own chapter in his country’s motor sporting history.

In short order what Jenson Button neatly summarises as ‘the Brackley-based team’ has been transformed from British American Racing, to Honda, to Brawn and finally now to Mercedes. Thus for the first time since 1955 there will be a pukka Silver Arrows team on a Grand Prix grid, and Rosberg will be one of the drivers. After a four-year apprenticeship with Williams he may finally have his hands on a winning car, and thus the forthcoming season could be the most important of his career thus far.

“It’s very important,” he acknowledges. “But it’s difficult to say if it’s the most important. We’ll have to wait and see how things go. Then again last year was important for me too, because I had to make the best of what I had. I was getting a bit worried, to be honest, because if I had a car like I had in 2008, it would really have been difficult for me to get a good cockpit. So I’m thankful that Williams gave me a decent car so that I could put in some really strong results and get the best possible drive for 2010.”

Indeed for four races in a row he beat championship leader Button, and that certainly caught the attention of Brawn GP. Rosberg is a bit coy about just when talks began, but by the time Rubens Barrichello began to consistently outpace Jenson, it was too late for the Brazilian to save his job.

What is clear is that Nico committed originally to Brawn GP, and the later confirmation of the Mercedes takeover was in effect a bonus, albeit one he’d taken a punt on.

“I had a hunch about the Mercedes thing also very early on, so it was always a factor in my decision. But all this happened a long time ago. I don’t really want to say the exact time.

“It was all super-confidential, such that nobody could say anything even to me. So it was very difficult. It was going to be the dream come true, if Mercedes did do it. Even towards the end it wasn’t a straightforward thing for Mercedes, so I was very relieved when it happened. It was a great drive, and it was the best drive I could have gotten.”

Of course there has been one major development that Nico could not have foreseen. When he signed up it was on the basis that Button would be his team-mate, but since then the goalposts have moved.

“It’s forced me into some new thinking… But coming out of that, I can see lots of positives. I would have really enjoyed being team-mates with him; it would have been a good challenge for me. In a way I’m a bit disappointed, because it would have been a perfect combination.”

Had Button stayed with Brawn he would have been in his eighth year with ‘the Brackley-based team’, but Rosberg says he did not see that as a problem in terms of his own assimilation into the camp.

“From the outside, yes, going there you would have thought it might be a little bit more difficult. But now that I’ve been there I don’t think Jenson really did a Michael Schumacher where he built a team around him. I think there would have been no problems from the word go for me to settle into the team.”

There’s an interesting historical twist to this. When Eddie Jordan was looking for a driver for the 1991 Belgian GP, one of the first names to come under consideration was that of Keke Rosberg, then driving for Peugeot in Group C sports cars. The idea was dropped when someone realised that the Finn was already 42, and in the end Eddie took a rookie called Schumacher – not least because Mercedes guaranteed a £150,000 pay day.

At the time of writing the world was still waiting to see whether – at the age of 41 – Michael will make his comeback in a Mercedes F1 car. If it happens, the dynamic in the rebadged team will be completely different to what Rosberg was expecting. He says he’s not concerned about the rumours.

“I think it would be great for the sport and great for Mercedes and the team. For me too, to have him next to me would be a great challenge. I would really like to have him as a team-mate.

“I’m sure he’d be really competitive, but it’s difficult to say. In all the things he’s been driving lately, he’s been very fast. He won a kart race in Brazil and he was quick in the Race of Champions, so I think the driving skill is still there. He could do well. But then again look at Fisichella, who was really struggling with a change of car. That makes me a bit less sure how well he would do.

“What I would welcome is a strong second team-mate, who is just as able as me to score some big points for the team, and create a bit of rivalry. That’s what I would really welcome, and he would definitely suit that.”

If he does return Schumacher will renew his links with Mercedes, but Rosberg has long-standing connections of his own with the Stuttgart marque, going back to the days when he partnered Lewis Hamilton in the MBM (as in Mercedes-Benz McLaren) kart team.

“It was more Ron [Dennis] who was pushing on the karting, supported by Mercedes-Benz, which I was very thankful for back then. But I’ve always been in contact with Mercedes. My dad used to race a Mercedes in DTM, so when I was seven years old I was walking around the Mercedes motorhome, and I’ve known Norbert Haug for a long time. The contact has always been there through my Formula BMW and F3 years, racing at DTM events.”

There’s another familial link in that when Keke joined Williams in 1982, Ross Brawn was a member of the design team.

“My dad remembers Ross being a quiet young fellow reading his fishing magazines in the corner of the factory! Just knowing that he’s there gives me an extra bit of confidence, just because I believe in his capabilities. Now that I’ve been in the factory, I see that the confidence has spread to quite a few other people. It’s not just Ross.”

Rosberg used the 2009 season as a shop window for his talents in order to impress Brawn and other team bosses. After four years at Williams it was time to move on, and with so many seats opening up, he had to put himself at or near the top of everyone’s wish lists.

“Of course I would have wanted to get podiums and wins, but they gave me a solid car that could finish in the points all the time. And we always knew coming to a race where we would be; it was very consistent going from one track to another, always up there.

“And that was nice, it really gave me a chance to score a lot of points, decent points, and I had my best season so far in terms of results and consistency. I was seventh in the World Championship, with only a McLaren and a Ferrari and the two Red Bulls and Brawns in front of me. So I think it was a decent season. Most importantly the season was, in my head, a stepping stone to better things in terms of results.”

Williams was one of only three teams to start the 2009 season with a double diffuser. Nico led the early laps in Malaysia, but bearing in mind the clear initial advantage, he didn’t seem to get much in the way of results. Was it a wasted opportunity?

“A little bit. But what you have to do is look at qualifying. We qualified fifth and finished sixth in Australia, qualified fourth and finished eighth in Malaysia when everybody had half points. Yeah, we could have done a little better. In Malaysia we had a good pace, but we weren’t as dominant as it looked. The rain in Malaysia was another disappointment; I could have finished second otherwise.

“Our straightline speed was terrible all year, and in Bahrain Lewis finished fourth with a terrible McLaren, because of straightline speed and KERS. I didn’t say that engine power was weak – it was straightline speed, so that’s engine and car. That was our main problem, really.”

Ironically the team had better luck once everyone had gone the double diffuser route. From Barcelona to Spa Nico had a run of eight finishes in the points, often in races of low attrition.

“There was a great consistency, always finishing sixth, fifth, fourth, always in the points. We could have brought that all the way to Abu Dhabi, but in Italy and Belgium our car was a disaster, and then there was my mistake on the pit exit in Singapore, and a failure in Brazil. Singapore was quite frustrating, because I would have been second. There wasn’t really an absolute highlight, but maybe it was fourth place in Germany, starting 15th and taking six places at the start, and another five in the race.

“I think the team did a very good job. The budget that they have, they must have worked very efficiently. It’s nice to see that we progressed through the season. We became stronger, and by the time we got to Hungary, we were running fourth. I think that they learned from the mistakes of 2008, and changed a lot of procedures – like how parts were developed, and how often they brought new parts to the race track, and directions that development went in. Things like that.”

He has no regrets about his four-year stint with Williams: “In general, it was very positive. Of course there were some difficult times also. The first year and the third year were the difficult ones, the second and fourth years were the easier and good ones. But in general, it’s been a good time. From one point of view it’s a pity to leave because I get along with everybody, and we have a lot of respect for each other and work well together, and it’s a great team.”

What Williams has missed since its split with BMW at the end of 2005 is the backing of a major manufacturer. So what will Mercedes be bringing to the party?

“It’s just a much more comfortable situation for the team. Security is the most important thing. Of course the engine would have been there anyway. The engine is strong, and I think now Mercedes is coming in there’s just going to be that extra support. It’s so important how the engine fits in with the car, so many things to consider, like the airbox and the exhausts. All of that is going to be so much improved now Mercedes is actually connected with the team. There’s a chunk of time that’s going to come out of that.”

What remains to be seen is just how competitive the package will be. Last year Brawn reaped the rewards of giving up on 2008 and devoting massive (Honda) resources to R&D. And then of course there was the double diffuser, which provided a massive but temporary boost in the early races. There’s a widely held view that the team won’t be able to repeat such form, but Nico believes it can.

“It really depends on the job that’s done in the winter, but the opportunity is there, for sure. We’ll be very close to the front; whether it’s the best car or not, we’ll have to wait and see. I’ve been in the factory now quite a few days already, and I’m very impressed and confident.

“Thanks to Ross, everybody seems to be working together strongly now, and there are some very, very competent people. The aero is the dominant thing in many ways, and that’s been impressive to see. Everybody in the factory believes that we’re one of the best teams. That’s the way it is at the moment.”

Does Rosberg deserve to be ranked among the very best drivers? That’s what he’ll have to demonstrate in 2010. He’s certainly added maturity and experience to the speed that was evident when he won the GP2 title back in ’05.

“I’m better for sure. I grew in things like the capacity to think of other things while you’re driving, because there’s so much you can do to help yourself with the differential and so on. There are so many buttons and set-ups that can actually make you quicker, more consistent. I’m definitely a better driver. And I’ll be even better next season, I think.”