As Nico Rosberg prepares for match point in Brazil, where he can wrap up the 2016 drivers’ title with victory, is it time to reconsider the German’s candidature for Formula 1 immortality?
There’s no denying Rosberg’s CV has imperfections. Conspicuous by its absence is an overtaking move on his Mercedes team-mate – and solitary title rival – Lewis Hamilton. He’s beaten Hamilton off the line on a few occasions this year but those spurts to the first corner owe more to computer software than driver skill.
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And he’s had a lot of luck – or, to be more accurate, Hamilton has had a lot of bad luck. But the fortunes of fate play a part in every sport. If an asterisk was put alongside every champion who enjoyed good luck the rollcall would look like an item of morse code.
Nobody, not even Nico or his most committed supporters, is saying he is a faster driver than Hamilton or the best in F1. But is it fair to argue that if Nico does win the title, either in Brazil or Abu Dhabi, it would be fair reward, fair enough, and good fare for Formula 1?
Here are seven reasons why Rosberg would be a worthy winner of this year’s title – if he wins it…
It would be a triumph from adversity
Barely a year ago, Rosberg looked a broken man – and a broken driver. What’s remarkable about his 2016 title push is that it began less than a week after his lowest moment: ‘Cap spat’ at the US GP when his mistake allowed Hamilton through to wrap up the title.
The following Sunday, displaying admirable fortitude and resilience, Rosberg bounced back with victory in Mexico – the first of seven successive victories for the German. “Since the pain in defeat in Austin we’ve all seen a changed Nico,” says an admiring Damon Hill.
Whatever your opinion of Rosberg the driver, it’s impossible not to be impressed by his tenacity.
He’s been more consistent than Hamilton
Rosberg doesn’t have Hamilton’s pace. He doesn’t have Hamilton’s skill at overtaking. And he doesn’t have his team-mate’s capacity to ignite a weekend from the mundane to Box Office entertainment.
But neither has Rosberg self-destructed in the manner of Hamilton in Baku, when Lewis crashed into a wall during qualifying, or in Suzuka where Lewis’ distractions were well snapped and well documented. Rosberg has instead been a model of consistency. His one poor performance occurred on race day in Monaco and his only race-day ‘mistakes’, when tangling with Hamilton twice in Spain and Austria and with Max Verstappen in Germany, are open to alternative description.
In qualifying, he has scarcely put a wheel off line all year – as testified by the fact he has qualified on the front-row for every single race. As Wolff remarked after the Japanese GP: “If you want to be a world champion, you have to minimise mistakes, and that’s what Nico is doing.”
He’ll have won it his way
Rosberg surprised reporters at the start of 2016 by scoffing at suggestions he needed to ‘get his elbows out’ and play dirty to prevail over Hamilton. Apparently unconvinced that ‘Mr Nasty’ would work, Rosberg instead opted to be ‘Mr Nice’ for 2016. As early as April, his disarming description of Hamilton as “the benchmark” had become a familiar refrain.
“Nico’s self-discipline has been taken to new levels this year,” said Wolff last month. “He wouldn’t even read a news article that is bad for him because it would annoy him. He just hides everything away that might distract.”
In the testosterone-driven world of the F1 grid, where the DNA of every driver is built on an unyielding conviction they are uniquely special, Rosberg’s self-denial and modesty makes for an unusual approach. But by enabling him to simply focus entirely on his own performances without fretting about any of his team-mate’s superiorities, it’s one which has worked for him.
To repeat what we wrote in September: ‘Nico doesn’t have Hamilton’s pace but he has resolve, defiance and a capacity for clear thinking which is standing him in good stead against the occasional torpedo from his team-mate. ‘Hanging in there’ isn’t a motif legends are written around but it’s an approach which is working for Nico, a driver whose greatest strength is his acceptance of his weaknesses.’
He’s done the hard yards
Been there, worked it, deserved to win it?
As Martin Brundle recently noted: ‘Nico joined Mercedes when they weren’t successful; he has worked hard and been integral to their development’.
In other words, he’s done the hard yards at Mercedes, shown loyalty and commitment, and seen the good times and bad at Brackley. Does it therefore follow he deserves to reap the rewards?
F1 needs a new champion
Between them, Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have won the last six drivers’ world championships and all-but one of the last eight.
Regardles of whether Nico is worthy or not, F1 could do with a new champ as a buffer against accusations of predictability.