Smith: Now out of Hamilton’s shadow, what’s next for Nico Rosberg?

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Nico Rosberg’s coronation as Formula 1 world champion may have come about in the most dramatic of circumstances on Sunday in Abu Dhabi, yet the questions that followed his success could be seen from a mile off.

Does Rosberg deserve to be champion?

Did Hamilton deserve it more?

Would Hamilton have won it without his bad luck?

The questions are tiresome. So, here’s the answers: Yes, Nico Rosberg does deserve to be champion; sure, Lewis Hamilton would have been a worthy champion, but he scored less points through the season; maybe he would have won it without his bad luck, but who cares?

To question the legitimacy of Rosberg’s title victory is to do a great disservice to the German. 2016 was the year where he righted the wrongs of his championship bids in 2014 and 2015. His insular ‘one race at a time, that’s it’ public approach worked wonders, making him resistant to the mind games that Hamilton played throughout the year. Hamilton went to extreme lengths in the title decider to deny Rosberg victory, but his rival was wise every step of the way.

Yes, Hamilton won more races. But so did Felipe Massa in 2008 when he lost to, uh, Hamilton. Champions who didn’t win the most races include Alain Prost (1986 and 1989), Nelson Piquet (1983 and 1987), and Niki Lauda (1977 and 1984). Heck, even Keke Rosberg did in 1982, winning just one race all year long.

So let’s cut the ‘did Nico deserve it’ talk. He did. Hamilton was unlucky in places, yes. But he also struggled on crucial weekends such as Baku, Monza, Singapore and Japan. It was a far from perfect season from the three-time champion.

Rosberg will have woken up this morning with two things: a fuzzy head after a big party last night, and the stark realization that he is world champion. It will take a while to truly sink in, but as he is whizzed around the globe on his championship tour, it’ll truly hit him: this is what life is like as F1 world champion.

Rosberg has finally stepped out of Hamilton’s shadow after a career spent playing second fiddle. Right the way from their karting days as teammates to their time in separate teams in F1 before finally coming together at Mercedes, Rosberg has always been number two. But no more.

“It feels like I’ve been racing him for ever and always he’s just managed to edge me out and get the title even when we were small in go-karts,” Rosberg said.

“He’s just an amazing driver and of course one of the best in history, so it’s unbelievably special to beat him because the level is so high and that makes this even more… for sure, so much more satisfying for me.

“I took the world championship away from him which is a phenomenal feeling.”

But the story does not end here. What’s next for Nico Rosberg?

There’s certainly a feeling that one world title will be enough for Rosberg. When we look back on the greatest handful of races of this generation, it is unlikely the German will feature. In terms of raw talent, the likes of Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso will perhaps be remembered more strongly.

But Rosberg will forever be world champion. If he looks back on his career in 10 years’ time and still has just one to his name, it’s unlikely that he will be too disheartened by that. Sure, there could have been more titles, but he won at least one.

That’s what separates Rosberg from the aforementioned group of drivers. For Hamilton, three world titles is still not enough; four isn’t enough for Vettel; two does a huge disservice to Alonso, who could have easily won five.

But with Rosberg, you get the impression that, having reached the pinnacle after being the underdog, not adding to the haul would not offer the same kind of heartache that it has for the likes of Alonso.

If he only ends with one, he’d match among others, his father, Keke Rosberg; the only other son of a world champion to win one in Damon Hill; and the last non-Hamilton/Vettel world champion in Jenson Button, who won in 2009. They only ended with one, but none of those careers is sabotaged by the fact it’s only the one.

That said, if Rosberg can make the same kind of personal progression that he did from 2015 to 2016 after this title success, there is no reason why he can’t add to his haul of championships

He’s beaten Hamilton once. He knows the magic formula that so many drivers have tried and failed to work out over the past 10 years. If it means another year of ‘one race at a time’ and ‘that’s it’-s, then so be it: what works for Nico, works.

The other big thing that this championship victory will give Rosberg is confidence. As he dived down the inside of Max Verstappen in a pass that was crucial to his title glory on Sunday, part of me thought “would the 2015-spec Nico Rosberg have done that?” – probably not.

Had Rosberg’s new approach still resulted in a title defeat to Hamilton, the German may have been wondering what else he could do to finally be world champion. But he now has proof that this approach works. Add to that greater confidence and the positivity winning a title in such fashion gives, and we could be looking at the making of a real force in F1.

Interestingly, a similar thing happened to Button, who like Rosberg, took a decade to win his first title. He was always regarded as being a hugely talented and capable racer in F1, but it was not until his title win in 2009 that we really saw him step up to the next level. When Button joined McLaren, most expected Hamilton to wipe the floor with him – yet until Sunday, Button was the only teammate to have beaten the Briton across the course of a season.

Rosberg will now be set for one of the most content winters of his racing life. He can enjoy his time with his wife, Vivian, who was with him through all of his celebrations in Abu Dhabi, and complete regular daddy duties with one-year-old Alaïa, content in himself with a championship on his mantlepiece. Rosberg may not grace red carpets all over the world like his teammate will this winter, but that makes him no less of a champion.

Rosberg’s first title defense will begin in earnest, and we look forward to seeing just how he manages life as top dog in F1. But for now, he can enjoy the success he so richly deserves.

And as for the naysayers? Well, don’t expect Nico to dwell on things.

“I don’t drive for credit, I drive to win the world championship, and I have achieved that,” he said.

“It was my childhood dream to win the world championship and that’s done and that’s what I’m excited about.

“I look forward to celebrating with all the people who have been supporting me.”

Ricciardo set to see Dale Jr.’s final Texas ride in two weeks (VIDEO)

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We’ve written before about Daniel Ricciardo’s love of Dale Earnhardt and his love of the No. 3, which Ricciardo has selected as his permanent number for the duration of his Formula 1 career. And additionally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has offered up the opportunity that one day Ricciardo could race a JR Motorsports car in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, and Ricciardo has said he’d be up for it.

And although Earnhardt Jr. has only used the No. 3 on a handful of occasions in his career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Ricciardo knows how much the number means to the NASCAR veteran as he prepares for his final few starts in the Cup Series the tail-end of this year.

After the Mexican Grand Prix next week, Ricciardo is set to stay in North America for the off-week between the Mexican and Brazilian Grands Prix.

In that break, he said he’ll see Earnhardt Jr. in person at the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (Sunday, Nov. 5, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to ensure he gets to see him before he retires from full-time competition.

Ricciardo explained his planning during Thursday’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“Well I’ll see him for the first time in Dallas. I’m gonna go to the NASCAR race in two weeks time at Texas Motor Speedway,” Ricciardo told NBCSN.

“Yeah, so, I gotta see him race before he hangs up the helmet.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well.”

Ricciardo is also optimistic he’ll get the chance to do a helmet swap with Earnhardt Jr. at the event.

“Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Stay tuned for more on this over the coming weeks.