16 Apr 2012 – Nico Nearly Man No More
Some might say that he has it all.
He has the pedigree of a Grand Prix winner. He is, after all, the son of 1982 Formula One Drivers’ World Champion Keke Rosberg. Sadly, though, in this way he’s not particularly special. After all, he’s not the first scion of a Grand Prix superstar to carry on in the family business. The Rosbergs, after all, are only following on from the Hills (Graham and Damon, thus far the only father-son F1 world champion duo in the sport’s history), the Villeneuves (Gilles and Jacques, Grand Prix winners both), and, to a lesser extent, the Brabhams (father Jack was a 3-time world champion; sons Goeff and David flew the Brabham family colors with pride in the 1980s and early 1990s).
He has built up the requisite experience in lesser racing series on his journey to Formula One. He was the series champion in German Formula BMW in 2002, and was the inaugural GP2 champion in 2005. Obviously he had won dozens of races in karting and other racing series as well before joining the Williams Grand Prix team in 2006. Here again, Keke’s son is not particularly special: Most F1 stars win their share of races and championships on their trips up the ranks. Indeed, there are many champions in the junior formulae who don’t achieve too much once they get to auto racing’s grandest stage (Erik Comas, anyone?)
Rosberg spent four years with the formerly mighty Williams team (2006-2009), then was handpicked by Mercedes-Benz to fill one of their driver vacancies when they took over the 2009 Constructors World Champion Brawn outfit. Though Rosberg occasionally had some very impressive outings whilst at Williams, many observers believed that he owed his new seat to the fact that he raced under the German national flag in his racing career (Nico actually carries dual-citizenship with Germany and Finland).
Cynical as that view may be, undoubtedly the move from Williams to Mercedes-Benz represented an improvement to the quality of the equipment at his disposal. After all, Williams had not been a serious World Championship contender since 2004, which was also when the team last won a Grand Prix. Since even before then, Williams had gradually been sliding further and further away from the sharp end of the grand prix grid. Where before giants such as Mansell and Senna and Prost would engage in fierce political battles fighting for a controlling position at Williams, the team had become the refuge of journeymen drivers desperate to restart their F1 careers (Rubens Barrichello) or newcomers with no real hopes beyond just making up the numbers (Kazuki Nakajima).
Upon arriving at Mercedes-Benz, however, Nico Rosberg faced a strange challenge: Seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher was returning from retirement and reuniting with his old pal from Ferrari, Ross Brawn, at Mercedes. It didn’t take long for the older German to mark out his territory, insisting that he, not Rosberg, had first call over who would race the #3 Mercedes-Benz MGP W01, thereby claiming however unofficially number one status in the team (traditionally, drivers who drove the lower-digit, odd-numbered car in a two-car team were the designated lead driver for that team). Rosberg took the older German’s presence in the team in stride and simply did his best in the car.
Yet even in what should have been an apparently straightforward task Rosberg faced an uncommon situation: Since he was far younger and far more attuned to the requirements of the current breed of grand prix car (F1 cars evolve constantly, oftentimes from race to race), the logical expectation was for him to show Michael Schumacher the way around. Schumacher was handicapped by his three-year disconnection from the sport as well as by Father Time, in that his reflexes and reaction times would undoubtedly be slower than his much younger teammate’s.
On the other hand, Schumacher IS a seven-time World Champion; his prodigious talent for driving a racing car allied to his often ruthless approach on the track is a record-setting combination. In terms of architecture, Schumacher’s ground floor was often higher than other, less talented rivals’ maximum ceiling.
Nico Rosberg, then, whether he admitted it or not, was in a no-win situation. If he beat Michael Schumacher, well, by all rights he should, being younger and never losing the thread of continuity through his career as a Formula 1 driver. And if he couldn’t beat the older German? What else was new under the sun, for too few of Schumacher’s teammates had ever approached him in performance or results, whether they were contractually obligated to cede to the German champion or not.
I know this: In my own mind, I thought that the only way Nico Rosberg could ever emerge unscathed in the battle against one of the all-time greats was for him to beat Michael Schumacher decisively at least 95% of the time, in both qualifying and in the races. Nothing less than absolute domination of the much older Schumacher would do.
For the most part, Nico and Michael’s first two seasons as Mercedes-Benz F1 teammates lived up to my description of Rosberg’s circumstances; both literally and figuratively, it was a no-win situation. Neither Nico nor Michael ever looked like serious contenders for grand prix victories, much less championship glory, in either 2010 or 2011. The numbers say Nico outqualified his great teammate more often than not, but the difference in their best lap times was almost always skimpy rather than dominant in Rosberg’s favor. At least to me, this suggested that Rosberg’s best was nowhere near the great Schumacher’s level, even many years past his peak. And in the races, the elder German sometimes raced with more pace and polish than Nico did, especially in the latter stages of their second season together.
It seemed pretty clear to me that Nico was starting to drown in the rising tide of Schumacher’s resurgence and reemergence as one of Formula 1’s leading lights. I’m only speculating, but when I connect the dots I think what has happened is that the Mercedes-Benz team has decided to follow Schumacher’s lead insofar as taking his inputs and feedback to guide them in their ongoing quest to design and evolve an ever-faster, ever-more efficient and effective Formula 1 car. This is specifically why I thought Nico Rosberg should demonstrate his complete dominance over an older champion like Schumacher: A Formula 1 team will always listen more closely and cater to the requirements of the driver who consistently and decisively gets the better results. Though Rosberg was nominally that driver by virtue of the number of points he scored and his grid placement compared to Schumacher, the contest was too close.
Think of things this way: If Schumacher is that close to Nico Rosberg in a car that, theoretically, catered to neither driver’s particular strengths, what would most likely happen if you designed and set up the car catering to Schumacher’s unique requirements?
To my mind, it’s no accident that Schumacher out-qualified Nico in the first two grands prix of 2012. To me, this was a clear-cut sign that Mercedes AMG (as the team is now known) had finally decided to cater to Schumacher’s distinctive requirements. It is only natural, therefore, for Rosberg’s performance and results to suffer.
Nico Rosberg, who supposedly had it all, seemed in real danger of becoming just the next “nearly man” in F1. To be good, yet not quite good enough, is a curse for those who aspire to the highest levels of achievement.
The thing about Nico Rosberg, though, is that in the years I’ve watched him he has never truly shown that he had that kind of ambition, the kind that would push him beyond his talent’s limitations. He has good natural car control and speed, but nowhere near the Vettel or Hamilton class. He is reputed to be one of the more technically-accomplished drivers of the current generation, able to tune the car so that it is both fast and efficient; sadly for him, he has never been able to translate his skills at providing good technical feedback into developing his teams’ cars into better machines as the season progresses, the way Prost used to, and the way Jenson Button is now the best at. If only he had something akin to Fernando Alonso’s steely determination, he might overcome his shortcomings and fulfill the promise hinted at by his pedigree and experience as a winner in his journey towards the pinnacle of motorsports.
In China, however, something clicked for Rosberg. He took the pole position and won his very first grand prix in 111 tries. He beat Michael Schumacher fair and square, as well as every other driver. Quite like Button, Nico was able to get the best performance from his tires, maintaining a solid pace as well as keeping enough of his tires’ performance in hand in case he needed a hard push towards the end.
Sadly, though, I have a feeling that this will be Nico Rosberg’s one lone day in the sun, a day when he proved to be just good enough, and his rivals ran into some problems of their own (Button looked like a likely late challenger but for a botched tire change, and Schumacher was also victimized by some shoddy Mercedes AMG pit work).
Without wanting to take anything away from him, I think that Nico Rosberg, a grand prix winner at last, is now no longer just the next nearly man in Formula 1; rather, it’s going to be a case of one and done.
If somehow he does better, and he blossoms into a consistent Grand Prix winner after breaking his duck in China, then he deserves all the credit in the world.