Nico Rosberg: five time race winner, GP2 champion, Williams race driver. It seems natural, as though the season was a mere formality to get to where he is now, as if everyone was expecting this result from the beginning of the year and all he did was live up to expectations. But it was never really like that – he had to make this season with his own two hands, he believed when perhaps no one else did, and the fact that it seems the obvious result in retrospect only shows what a good job he did over the year.
At the start of the season Nico wasn’t seen as one of the main challengers for the title – he was one the Three Princes, the sons of former World Champions that were trying their luck in the series, but he wasn’t even the most hotly tipped of the trio. Nico came from a solid karting pedigree and a Formula BMW title ahead of a couple of less than perfect years in the Formula 3 Euroseries – the saying goes that you’re only as good as your last season, and if you lost, then…
Nico’s shyness was clear at the start of the year, when he struggled to find things to say to the throng of journalists as well as the other inhabitants of the new paddock, and his heavy handed attempts at humour, comprised in equal parts of sarcasm and faux outrage, didn’t endear him to many people.
But in reality it was probably more a part of learning to understand who he was, and like anyone that’s a long road with a lot of detours. Every young boy is defined in part by his father, particularly if he tries to make a name for himself in the same line of work, but when you’re a racing driver and your father is Keke Rosberg there is no doubt that you’ve got a lot to live up to.
As the season got underway he retreated to his team, learning how they worked and putting his solid engineering background – Nico was studying the subject before taking time out to concentrate more fully on racing – to good use. The bond he formed with race engineer Steeve Marcel was unparalleled in the paddock, with the pair speaking their own language and spending hours pouring over the data to find an advantage, any advantage, for the next race.
It’s indicative of the closeness between the pair that Nico was disappointed at the awards show in Monza, not because he didn’t win the best driver award, but because Marcel wasn’t awarded the best engineer prize.
The relationship worked, and through that Nico learnt more about himself. Race results always improve the mood of a driver, but more than that when they started to come for Nico it was as though they were a validation, proof that he was actually good at his job after being knocked back by the lack of success over the previous two years.
And by believing more in himself, he became someone that others could believe in too. The results started to come, and the sunny, mischievous side of Nico suddenly bloomed. When interviewed on television immediately after winning in Magny Cours it was suggested that he had been lucky to have had such a good car in the race, to which he deadpanned: “I guess I didn’t have much to do with it then, if it was all the car.” The interviewer, horrified at offending the race winner, started to apologise before a wry grin creased his face.
The longer the season went on, the more success he had; the more success, the more comfortable he seemed within himself. The first podium, the first pole position, the first Sunday win, the first Saturday win, the contract to become a permanent test driver for Williams, it all reinforced his growing belief that he was there on merit rather than a name. “You’re back again?” he would often ask the GP2 press officers after a race when they needed a quote for the website. “Cool – I must have had a good race then.”
The turning point in Nico’s season was the mid-season test, which moved ART from a potential podium finisher into a winning team in search of their first victory. Pole position for his team-mate in the next race in Magny Cours was the precursor to a dominant win in the second one, and he was on his way. When asked by a journalist what the team had found in the test Nico laughed, saying: “I’d be pretty stupid to tell you, wouldn’t I?” After originally seeing GP2 as a two year programme, he could now see that he had a shot at winning it first time out, and he wasn’t about to give that advantage away to anybody.
It was the start of a remarkable run to the title: before the test Nico scored 21 points to Heikki Kovalainen’s 38, afterwards he outscored his rival 99 points to 67. Heikki, the initial runaway favourite and racing for the most successful team at this level in recent years, tried everything he had, but ultimately he had no answer to the unbroken string of success Nico was building.
Nico’s team boss Frederic Vasseur had humble ambitions at the start of the season, making a step up in category to compete with teams with years of success at this level: “I wanted to just perform well, maybe take a win during the season. I could never have imagined winning the title like this.” Asked for his opinion on his lead driver and he smiled embarrassedly, looked up to the sky and said “oh, I don’t know where to begin…”
The final step in the process of becoming Nico was learning to mix self-deprecation with self belief. When he finally claimed the title after winning race one in Bahrain and was addressed as GP2 champion, he smirked “there’s worse things than that, for sure! It’s unreal – we just progressively got faster and faster, and then we went to the test and got a lot better.
“I hardly made any mistakes – I made a few, of course, but very few compared to last year – and I think I’ve really improved myself. I’ve got this qualifying thing, where I’ve done a great job and got five poles, and I really enjoy it to go balls out for one lap.
Now Formula One is definitely the next step, and I can’t believe I’m actually talking about it like that! Everything really worked out fine.”
After a season like this, it’s tough to imagine anyone arguing with him about that. Nico Rosberg, race winner, GP2 champion, Williams race driver. d in the championship by just half a point. Scott Speed took two