There is an element of destiny about the 2014 Formula 1 world championship and that it should have come to be decided at the final round of the season, this weekend in Abu Dhabi. Ever since that first pre-season test and we were first given concrete evidence to support the rumours of the brilliance of the W05 hybrid’s package, through the ups and downs of reliability and team politics, somehow its always seemed likely to come to this.
Forget double points. When it comes down to it, it really doesn’t matter all that much. Had the gap been 26 points or more, then yes one might have reason to argue that it was all desperately unfair. But if you think about it, double points hasn’t really done a thing… yet. The championship would always have gone to the final race. The grand plan to keep the interest of the viewing public piqued until the last race has been accomplished more by the 2014 technical regulations and the Mercedes Petronas AMG team’s decision to allow its drivers to race, than by a ridiculous gimmick dreamt up in a boardroom.
From a personal perspective, that it should all come down to Abu Dhabi creates something of a perfect exclamation point for me, too. This weekend will be my last as GP2 commentator, and at the conclusion of the championship’s tenth season of competition it seems appropriate that one of its first two champions will be crowned Formula 1 champion on Sunday. I PRd them both. I have no favourite. I believe there have been virtues and accomplishments in both of their 2014 seasons.
At the base of it, we have two of the most gifted drivers of their generation gunning for a world title in the very best car of the year. It is absolutely as it should be. Both have transformed themselves remarkably since those formative years. And yet neither seems to have changed at all from the slightly awkward young men I first met 10 years ago.
So here are some personal recollections of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, and why, to my mind, either man would be a worthy world champion come Sunday.
I can’t recall the first time I met Nico Rosberg. All I remember is that I despised him, everything he was and all he represented: the cock-sure, entitled, bolshy son of a world champion. No grace, no humility. Wafting in, a blur of blonde hair and arrogance. A Formula BMW champion yes, but only a few F3 wins and just three years in single seaters gave what I held to be little foundation for such seeming conceit. I disliked him intensely. It got to the point where I held such disdain for him that I would actively seek for our paths to not cross… which was fairly hard given I was PRing the championship in which he was racing. I’d simply ask someone else to grab his quotes for me. They always seemed to be able to pull more out of him anyway.
But after a slow start his major results started to come, fittingly enough beginning at his “home” race of Monaco. In 2005 we only ran one race in the Principality, and he ended up on the podium. It gave him the confidence he needed. His first win wasn’t far away and as soon as it came, the championship charge really began. While the early pace-setters and championship favourites Heikki Kovalainen and Arden plateaued, Rosberg and ART improved with each passing race.
I never lost sight of the irony, however, that ART had never been the first option for him. On the basis of the 2004 F3000 season, the most coveted seats were at Arden and BCN. BCN had been Rosberg’s preferred and hoped-for destination, until a perfect sales pitch by Nicolas Todt and Fred Vasseur saw them lure the German to their new outfit. How fortuitous for Rosberg, that while BCN floundered and eventually folded, ART should become, on the back of the tremendous foundation laid in the guise as ASM, the class of junior series racing over that year and the following decade.
Nico Rosberg had been quick from the outset, and watching his racecraft develop as the season went on became a growing point of emotional turmoil for me. He was so impressive; seemingly effortlessly rapid and blessed with a precision that was metronomic. But I just couldn’t like him. I wished he’d been a good guy, one I could get excited about. But instead I felt huge sadness that such a wonderful talent had been given to a guy who was apparently such a Class A prat.
I recall the low point only too well. He was breezing past on his way to dinner. His team-mate Alexandre Premat had topped qualifying, and I’d used the staggeringly unoriginal press release headline of “Premat Powers to Pole.”
“Why don’t I ever “power” to anything?” he pointedly sneered as he walked past.
I looked up, trying to figure out what he was talking about. Then it hit, and I wondered why he was being so petty. The headline was simple alliteration. I had probably or would probably use “Rosberg Reigns” at some point of the season on the back of one of his wins. It was just Nico being typical Nico.
“Dick!” I whispered under my breath, just loud enough for him to hear.
Later that night, I needed to talk to his then-PR guy Karsten Streng and hopped into the ART truck to find him.
“Karsten, can we have a chat?”
Out from behind his race overalls jumped Nico.
“Oh, so you don’t want to speak to me then? Huh? What’s that all about? You’d rather speak to Karsten than to me?”
I turned on my heels and walked out.
Karsten ran after me.
“Will, man, you can’t let that get to you. You know he’s only joking, right? Just fire it straight back at him. He’ll love it. He’s really a fun guy… honestly. But if you don’t give it back to him he’ll think he’s got the high ground. He loves a challenge.”
The next day Nico sent some pithy comment my way, so I turned around, flipped him the bird and winked. “Fuck you Rosberg.”
He looked taken aback. I broke out in a cold sweat. This was not behavior becoming of the championship’s press officer. Had I just managed to ruin any relationship I might have had with the man destined to be our first champion?
A smile broke across his face, and we never had a cross word again. Indeed, we started to get on really well. At the end of the season I received a package to my home, from Monaco. In it was an ART team shirt, signed by Nico, thanking me for my support. I had it framed, and it remains one of my most treasured pieces of memorabilia from my career in racing.
Nico was the most savvy driver I ever worked with. Stepping down from the podium after winning the GP2 title, he spoke to the awaiting press in turn, each in their own language. I’d only ever seen him in individual language press briefings, and to see him utilise such cool and calm intelligence so soon after the elation of what was at the time the most meaningful moment of his career left me astounded.
But therein lies the deepest issue with Nico Rosberg. He isn’t just smart. He’s the sort of smart that makes the rest of us question if we’re quite as clever as we thought we were. And at times it can be his undoing.
I’d seen his intelligence and need for the high ground cause him trouble time and time again in interviews, even in the GP2 days. The interviewer would sit down, all smiles, ready to start the conversation. But Nico, fearful of being on the back foot, would fire retorts and wrestle control of the interview back into his own hands. He would put the interviewer at ill ease in order to make himself feel more comfortable with the situation. What resulted was a terrible interview, and the prevailing opinion of Rosberg being precisely the one I’d drawn when first we met: that he was cocky and arrogant. When I came back to journalism in 2008 I had booked a sit down with him at Williams and for the first 2 minutes of the interview, that’s exactly how he was: back against the wall, stand-offish, arrogant, unlikable. I switched off the Dictaphone and asked him if he was going to carry on being a prick or if we could do this properly. He looked sheepish, apologised, and we picked back up with what ended up being a great interview.
But his pace… his pace has always been undeniable. In his debut F1 race, at the scene of his GP2 title win, he had to take a new front wing at the end of the first lap but fought through the field in an unfancied Williams and scored points. He sat on the second row in only his second F1 weekend in Malaysia. But after a while, all of that burgeoning incredible pace and talent seemed to stagnate. Folk within Williams would talk about Nico “switching off” or “going to sleep” in the middle of races. Just when they needed him to be on it, he wouldn’t be. That infamous moment in Singapore 2008 when he crossed the pit exit line denied him and the team a possible win. But his pace that weekend had already caused many to ask if the German hadn’t indeed been holding back all season, and that it was only there in Singapore, when he allowed that veil to slip, that we’d seen the real pace of the car. Of course, he’d already been on the podium with his old karting team-mate and soon-to-be F1 team-mate Lewis Hamilton at the season opener in Melbourne. Their embrace still sticks in the memory. But then the pace of the car just disappeared. Why?
When Rosberg joined Mercedes, the eagle-eyed will have spotted that the regular gaps Nico stood ahead of his new team-mate, statistically the greatest driver who ever lived, were not so different to the advantage he held over his one-time Williams co-pilot Kazuki Nakajima. Are we to infer from that the seemingly incongruous suggestion that Kazuki Nakajima was as fast as Michael Schumacher? Or do we draw what can surely be the only realistic conclusion? Namely, that Rosberg was holding back in the Williams in an attempt to display to the world a huge talent going to waste in an under-par car.
All of which led to a question often asked: is Nico Rosberg too smart for his own good?
It’s a question that has come back again this year.
Many will point to Monaco as a stand-out point of the season. I always felt Rosberg was smart enough to pull off that stunt in qualifying, but I never believed he was that cynical or cold. To be a world champion takes more than intelligence and speed. As I argued over Multi-21 last year, while we may hate to admit it, what marks the champions out from the also-rans is the ability to be a complete bastard when the moment arrives. In Monaco, Nico was the bastard and turned that qualifying controversy into a race win that had the ability to completely shift the tide of the season.
That it didn’t, however, is his own doing.
Lewis Hamilton is widely regarded as one of the best qualifiers in modern Formula 1. And yet, with a dominantly fast car at his disposal, he has lost the Pole Trophy to Nico Rosberg, the German amassing 10 poles to Hamilton’s seven. That metronomic precision has played into the Rosberg’s hands on many occasions this season, and more often than not it has given him the upper hand going into the race. On Saturdays at least, Rosberg has proved beyond doubt that he has the pace. But he hasn’t turned that Saturday pace on regularly enough in Sunday’s race.
Mentally, what happened in Budapest was also a tremendous shock. Hungary should never have affected him as much as it did. Perhaps it all comes down to how much brain capacity we consider Nico Rosberg as having, but that August break should have been used to move on from what he perceived as injustice, and start the second half of the season fresh and with total clarity of mind. Rosberg used all of that mindfulness, however, to focus on the negatives and came back to Spa with it still playing on his mind.
That incident on lap 2 of the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix has been poured over to frankly ridiculous degrees. To me, it was a nothing moment. Rosberg could have backed out, Hamilton could have given more room. That both went into it so pathetically ultimately resulted in the damage it did. If Rosberg had truly wanted to teach Hamilton a lesson then he should have gone in hard. That he didn’t is the only reason that Hamilton’s tyre was sliced. Any intent, and Rosberg would have snapped his front wing, bouncing it off the side of the Briton’s tyre. Hamilton would have stormed off into the distance while Rosberg was forced to switch his wing.
I argued at the time that Rosberg needed to embrace one side or the other. He needed to be a hero or a villain, because if he was neither, he risked becoming nothing. And so it emerged after the race that he had told Hamiton he had allowed the impact to happen. A step towards becoming that villain? Perhaps, but it wasn’t enough. And that’s the big sadness of his season. He has been so fast and so consistent, but his inability to pick a side and his attempts at being all things to all people has led to him being left wide open to attack from all sides.
The way he interacts with broadcast crews is an incredible illustration of this. In Monza, in speaking with me on American television he spoke in confident and unashamed tones despite his apparent dressing down by the team over Spa. With the Germans he was the same… almost bullish. And then to the British TV and radio crews, his shoulders slumped forward, his head bowed down, his tone was full of contrition and regret. What he was saying was no different to what he had told the German or international crews, but the way it was said was at total odds with how he had been just 10 seconds before.
Just as in Bahrain at that GP2 finale 10 years ago, I stood in awe. So savvy, so intelligent to his audience… but perhaps, in this instance, a reflection of him trying to be just that little bit too smart.
The thing is, he can be so charming too. He has a dry and sarcastic wit, which can sometimes be played out with a deft finesse. In America and Brazil, he started to have a very subtle jab at his championship rival by adopting Lewis Hamilton’s apparent mot du jour. In almost every interview, Rosberg would drop in a little comment about how “blessed” he felt. Shrewd. Subtle. At times, however, he can be a total child. In Hungary this year I was running from my commentary position to the GP3 podium to conduct the post race interviews. Time is tight at the best of times, but when I arrived at the swipe gates I felt an arm around my waist pulling me back. At first I thought it was an over-zealous security guard. But no. It was Nico, giggling away with a huge grin plastered across his face.
Nico Rosberg’s victories have been well won in 2014, Brazil standing as a perfect example of just how wonderfully he can put a weekend together when he puts his mind to it. I would put his ability to nurse his car home in Canada as one of his stand-out moments of the season. But they have been too infrequent. Just five wins from ten pole positions does not reflect well on the German. In wheel to wheel combat with his team-mate, he is yet to come out on top. He was roundly beaten in Bahrain when it was he that was on the optimal strategy and on the better tyres. He choked in Monza. He choked in Russia. He claimed that in Austin he just “wasn’t on it,” which I still hold to be one of the most shocking admissions I’ve ever heard from a man in the midst of the fight for something to which he has dedicated his entire life.
Overall, there have been times this year when it has seemed that the Nico Rosberg of 2014 has been that same Nico Rosberg of the Williams years… doing just enough, perhaps hoping that consistency will hand him the title in the event that the unreliability which took the very first race away from his team-mate and placed it before him, may just repeat at the very final race to put that world championship into his hands. As many have pointed out, given that his old man managed to win the crown with just one race win to his name why should Nico regard winning a championship via consistency to be anything other than virtuous? It’s a fair question.
Should he be crowned 2014 Formula 1 world champion, be it through double points or, let’s hope, a barn-storming wheel-to-wheel thriller, some will still argue that Nico Rosberg does not deserve to be world champion. With them, however, I would disagree. Lest we forget, this is the only man who, over the course of a full Formula 1 season, finished ahead of Michael Schumacher as a team-mate. As if to reinforce the point, Rosberg achieved this giant toppling feat not once, but thrice.
His out-and-out pace in qualifying this year has been insurmountable. That he has won the inaugural Pole Trophy is evidence of that. So we know he has the pace, we know he has the temperament to win races, and we know that on occasion he can embrace his inner bastard and drive with the ruthlessness that sets world champions apart.
Nico Rosberg has shown repeatedly in 2014 that he possesses the attributes shared by the best of the best. We should not deny him his glory should he be confirmed as such on Sunday.
Tomorrow… Lewis Hamilton.