A few months on from his shock retirement, Nico Rosberg has no regrets. The 2016 world champion loves his new life – and relishes watching his former rivals in action on TV
He looks the same as he did when he was winning the world championship last year. Except… the furrow in the brow has gone from Nico Rosberg’s face. He looks totally at ease with his new life away from the tracks, even though he remains a total fan of the sport and watches every race. After 20 years of the intensity of racing, he just switched it off once the goal was achieved, an idea that first formed in his mind after winning the 2016 Japanese Grand Prix to put himself 35 points clear with four races to go.
“That was the first time I properly had the thought. Because until then, the championship had just been a dream I was chasing. It was 100 per cent a personal decision; nobody else was involved in any way. After winning at Suzuka it was completely in my hands; I just needed second places. So it was real. There were many different elements. I had dedicated my life to it 100 per cent. There’s an incredible intensity required to be the best – 100 per cent life dedication. That’s how it was for me, anyway. I didn’t want to live my life that way forever – at that intensity.”
So when the goal was finally achieved on that Abu Dhabi evening, he knew he was entering a new phase of life. As an intelligent man from a privileged background, the world has always held a wonderful array of possibilities for Rosberg. But discipline is required to make something of them – and that’s a quality he has in spades. It’s also probably why he’d set himself the objective of a world title and why he felt no compunction to repeat himself once it was achieved, with fatherhood and the pull of a new life beckoning.
This is a guy who enrolled at Imperial College to study aeronautics and could have left racing then with just fond memories of fighting it out on Europe’s kart tracks against the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Robert Kubica. But winning the Formula BMW title and the F1 test that followed opened his racing horizons further. At 17 years old, that’s when his racing became serious, when the notion of 100 per cent dedication crystallised. So the 20-plus-year slog that ended in Abu Dhabi was in hindsight just a stint, not a life. Had he not won that title he’d be chasing it still. Had he won it earlier, he’d likely have been gone earlier too.
“IT FEELS AWESOME because I switched the focus off in fulfilment. And of course it’s different for everyone. I met Roger Federer at Wimbledon the other day and he’s at the opposite end. He had his peak but then just keeps going and fighting and fighting for years. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way and for me this feels perfect – it’s such a great memory that I now have, I’m just sitting here so happy. That’s very important to me. It’s an exciting time in my life – flexibility and freedom, exploring things.
“I’m very busy already, but it’s not something that’s going to have millions of people following what I’m doing. It’s only exciting to me – business stuff, investment, start-ups. But it’s special doing something that has millions of people joining in with your adventure and emotionally connecting with you. That’s a very special thing and while I’m on the look-out for something like that, it’s not easy to think what that might be.”
So no chance of a comeback somewhere down the line? “No, at the moment it’s an intellectual direction. I want to use my brain to do something cool.”
That reflects the way he went about his racing, too. His brain was a weapon used to supplement the talent and that sometimes came off as him being less instinctual than some of his peers, every bit as competitive but less impassioned, actually less caught up in racing. As if he were just loaning part of himself to the sport for a finite period rather than being immersed in it. Being up against Hamilton in the only title-contending team for three years led Rosberg to evolve, in a very deliberate way, as he adapted to a challenge that at times looked impossible.
So when Toto Wolff recalls Rosberg as the more vicious of the two, you can be sure it was all very deliberate and part of the game plan. The task: to beat Lewis Hamilton. The solution: to implement thought-out strategies that included psychological warfare. That constant picking at the challenge, never surrendering, always bouncing back, contributed to the difficult environment at Mercedes. It had to be this way, given the two personalities involved. Any other way and Rosberg would have been subjugated. But there was no real poison, for neither has that in them. Animosity and controversy of course, but no Senna/Prost or Mansell/Piquet poison.
“Even more than winning the title, beating Lewis to do it gave me particular satisfaction because he’s one of the best and the bar is very high. I’m very proud of the fact that I always bounced back after he’d beaten me. But he was an incredibly difficult opponent. Last year I spent a lot of time mental training – philosophy and things – for my head. To get 100 per cent out of that. I really learned to live and I learned that routine and discipline is important for me to be happy. With philosophy you learn about yourself and if you understand yourself that helps a lot because you understand ‘why am I massively nervous before a race?’ or ‘why am I angry after a race?’ You learn about those things and they make a big difference. If you understand things like jealousy – which is often just yourself. Or you understand that when someone is angry with you, it’s very often because they’re having a difficult day and you can allow for that. It helps you manage the situation.”
IT WASN’T ONLY Hamilton’s immense talent that made him so difficult to beat. He also has an incredibly fine line in being unreasonable on track. Racing is not a reasonable activity and being reasonable, rational and fair – positive traits in normal life – can be weaknesses in extremis. Rosberg, being a reasonable man, had consciously not to be so in certain situations with Hamilton. “It was so difficult because in his way of being a bit more unreasonable he always managed to do it in a grey area. He very rarely stepped over so it was very rare you could 100 per cent blame him. That’s just a skill he has – he’s very good in wheel-to-wheel situations. So it was tough to try to beat him in that area. With my mental training I ramped up the aggression last year – and I think that did produce some difficult moments, but in the overall picture in terms of the season that definitely worked very well.”
He’s partly referencing Barcelona ’16 here and their infamous first-lap collision. After out-racing Hamilton into Turn One, Rosberg’s refusal to back down as Hamilton was getting a run on him into Turn Four is what ultimately led to both Mercs ending their races in the gravel trap. But from Rosberg’s perspective, it was absolutely necessary. In 2015 he’d been bullied on track by Hamilton and now he had to stand his ground, mark a line in the sand. Three races after Barcelona, on the last lap of Austria, it happened again. Rosberg’s actions might have looked a little heavy-handed but there could be no ambiguity in his responses.
In large part this went back to Austin 2015, when Rosberg lost that title to Hamilton, Lewis deliberately running him out wide at the first corner and actually making contact. “Yes that was a very decisive point,” he says. “That first turn and that weekend. I won seven in a row after that! We pushed each other and it pushed me to raise my game more and more, all the way. What happened at Austin was a massive motivation – one of fear. I feared ever experiencing that feeling again. These are extreme situations. It’s about the world championship and a childhood dream and it’s against Lewis, my adversary since I was 13.”
The rivalry first stepped up in intensity in 2014, the moment it was very clear that each was the other’s only rival for the world title, given the superiority of their car. In the late stages of Bahrain with Hamilton defending on old tyres against Rosberg on new, Hamilton ran his rival out wide in Turn Four in a way Rosberg found unacceptable. His responses were many, off the track and on. But it came to a head that year at Spa on the first lap when Rosberg refused to back out as Hamilton took up his line ahead of him into Les Combes. A Hamilton puncture, a broken Rosberg wing and the loss of a team 1-2 put Rosberg very publicly in the doghouse at Mercedes. It took a few races before he came out fighting again. He’s a tough cookie and became an ever tougher one, annealed by the competitive white heat of a title-contending car. So when some said they had difficulty believing his trip down the escape road in qualifying at Monaco ’14 (thus denying Hamilton a final shot at pole) was deliberate because he was such a nice guy, those who knew him better could only smile wryly.
On such subjects, is there anything he can tell us now that he couldn’t at the time? A big smile, a very uncharacteristic small hesitation. “Ah, no. Not yet. It’s going to take a few more years. No book, but definitely some interesting stories.”
HAVING BACKED AWAY from the track’s intensity, he’s a more relaxed character now. But the adrenaline still kicks in at the start of a Grand Prix – even from his sofa! “How ridiculous is that?” he laughs, “but it’s true. I can feel my heart pumping. My body doesn’t seem to have realised I’m not there any more! It’s so weird.”
But his take on this year’s title fight is interesting. “I think Sebastian is maybe the most consistent in terms of his persona and the level he brings. Lewis is a little more up and down. The ups are awesome but sometimes there are some downs along the way. Valtteri I don’t really know – he seems very even-headed but still has had some quite big ups and downs this season. Not really sure where to place him, we need more time I think. Seb’s incident behind the safety car in Baku was fascinating, I thought. That over-confidence and self-belief is often a strength in racing. It makes a cocoon and gives you strength in a very difficult environment. But in this case it lost him a lot of points and probably more than that in doing something that just wasn’t acceptable. He lost control of his anger, which is pretty bad.”
Formula 1 moves so fast and it feels bizarre that Rosberg is already in the past as a racing driver, that he’s just watching it on TV like almost everyone else. It was only a few months ago he partied with his friends and family as the new world champion. “I’d invited them all out there but then I decided I didn’t want anything to be different from any other weekend, so I cancelled the invitations. But they were a bit stubborn and, without telling me, came anyway. Then after the race, all my best friends were there – family, everybody, so we just had a big party all together and it was one of the most special nights of my life because the emotion was just unreal.”
But only he and his wife knew at that moment that he’d raced his last. He made it public at his world champion’s acceptance speech in Paris a few weeks later. “I told my best friend just beforehand and he was gutted – he said he now knew how Take That fans felt when the band broke up! I had planned on telling my dad, too, but when my friend said that I thought, ‘If my dad says something similarly strong there’s no way I’ll be able to go on stage in 15 minutes and announce it.’ So he only got to find out afterwards. He phoned and said, ‘What the hell is going on?’ He was my number one fan so for him it was a very big disappointment because he was looking forward to more success. But very quickly he said, ‘You need to do what you’re happy with’ and now he understands completely because he can see me and can see I’m happy with everything.
“It really is perfect, couldn’t be better. The ending was so damn perfect. Beautiful.”