On the eve of the 2013 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Mercedes duo Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were invited to take part in a dune-buggy race in the desert. The pair’s approaches were telling: Hamilton the born racer immediately jumped at the chance to get in the cockpit, while Rosberg preferred to take time to assess the challenge, methodically asking questions about the possible dangers.
Rosberg is the first to admit his teammate has the edge in terms of raw pace, but it’s this meticulous approach that puts him within a whisker of the world title this season. Even if Hamilton wins Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Rosberg only needs to finish third to win his first title. Bar a solitary race retirement with engine failure, the last time either driver finished out of the top two was at Rosberg’s home race at Hockenheim, Germany, in July.
It has often been said that 31-year-old Rosberg was born to be a world champion. When he arrived on the planet, on June 27, 1985, in Wiesbaden, Germany, his father Keke had won the Detroit Grand Prix four days earlier, three years on from his sole world title.
It was fitting that a child who walked to school partly over the fabled track of Formula One’s crown jewel, the Monaco Grand Prix – he spent much of his upbringing in the principality, where he lives today – should now find himself at the very pinnacle of motorsport.
His first F1 memory is of being woken at home by the sound of Ayrton Senna’s McLaren going through the tunnel. The sport has permeated his life for as long as he can remember.
From the moment he took up karting at the age of 6 – a career that included being teammates with Hamilton – through winning German Formula BMW and the inaugural GP2 Series, he was always billed as Keke’s son, not helped by the fact he was driving initially for Team Rosberg, an outfit funded by his father. It was a tag that has proved both a blessing and a curse.
“It’s opened up a lot of doors and given me plenty of opportunities,” he said at the start of his career, “because people are interested to see if I have my father’s ability. So I’m grateful for that. But it is a burden because I get asked about my father all the time. I just need to accept that he was a champion before me.”
Such comparisons have dissipated, having dwarfed his father in terms of race wins (23 to five), pole positions (30 to five) and fastest laps (20 to three).
But F1 was not his initial dream. A keen student, he had a place to study aeronautical engineering at Imperial College in London, but opted to pursue driving rather than design machinery.
Tellingly, when he took an engineering aptitude test to join the Williams F1 team, he scored higher than any other driver in the team’s history, Rosberg Sr, Alain Prost and Senna included. Williams gave him his first F1 test in 2004 – then 17, he was the youngest to drive an F1 car – and his debut in 2006. He finished seventh in his first race in Bahrain.
Clearly possessing a sharp brain, he’s fluent in five languages, and includes among his hobbies chess and reading. His recent reads include James Kerr’s Legacy, an insight into what the All Blacks rugby team can teach about leadership. That book, he said, helped him to be “better at reading people”. This season, he appears to have read Hamilton perfectly. Perhaps surprisingly, he described him as the “benchmark of Formula One” after the Chinese Grand Prix, before then blowing him off the track.
The pair’s relationship has not fissured this year quite as in the past. Good friends growing up, they used to share races, rooms and restaurant tables, and a grainy photograph exists of the two on unicycles at a race – one of Rosberg’s party tricks is to juggle while unicycling. But there has been fractiousness, from the infamous coming together in Spa in 2014 through to the admission it was “impossible” for them to be friends as rivals for the world title.
There appeared to be the sense that Hamilton had got into Rosberg’s head sufficiently that a fourth world title for the Briton seemed to many a formality this season. But Rosberg never gave up belief, stretching his hat-trick of victories at the end of last season into a run of seven straight wins at the start of this one. Even when Hamilton fought back, Rosberg kept his cool and flipped the momentum once more.
Rosberg has posed a different prospect this season. Some argue that it’s down to the birth of his daughter Alaïa in August last year with his childhood sweetheart Vivian Sibold, an interior designer he met at the age of 16 and whom he married in 2014.
While Hamilton pursues a jet-set lifestyle hanging out with musicians and Hollywood A-listers between races, Rosberg has disappeared back to his family bubble at his homes in Monaco and Ibiza. He races with the No 6, a nod to that fact it’s both his wife and father’s favourite number.
There’s no denying that Rosberg is F1’s thinking man. Even now, he appears to ask as many questions in any given interview as he is asked, and appears better versed on the complexities of life out of the car than most peers.
He remains F1’s Mr Nice Guy, some have said too nice to be a world champion. But it’s apt that the driver he will battle it out with to be world champion, Hamilton, should describe him thus: “Nico’s the most competitive person I’ve ever met.”
Where once their competition was karting, table football and pool, now it rests on being champion of the world on the racetrack. Let the battle commence.
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