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

6 Comments

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.”

What IndyCar Drivers Are Saying about this weekend’s 2018 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Here’s What Drivers Are Saying about this Sunday’s 2018 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion): “We had a decent finish at Long Beach but we’re definitely hungry for more. Barber is one of my favorite tracks we visit – not just because we’ve won there – but because it’s a cool track and it’s only a few hours away from where I grew up (in Nashville, Tennessee). That just makes it even more special when I’ve won there. Barber is going to be interesting since it’s the first time we’re racing the new car on a road course. I think it could lead to some really exciting racing for the great fans at Barber and the fans at home. The whole No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet team and I are ready to take the strong car we have ready for this weekend to the track and run a great race.”

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Barber is a very nice track. I raced there last year (in Indy Lights). We did one day of testing there this year with the No. 4 ABC Supply Chevrolet, so hopefully we will have a great car to be running in the top 10. It’s a fast track and a physical track as well, so it’s going to be a long race. We need to concentrate on great laps and play the strategy again to see if we can get a top-10 there. I’m looking forward to it.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “We’ve been coming to Barber since 2010, and it’s been a really good track for us, but we’ve yet to win it. I think we’ve been on the podium nearly every race, with five or so of those being second-place finishes. It’s such a great event and you can really see what a great job the track does with the crowds growing year over year. Hopefully, this will be our year with the PNC Bank car.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “Obviously it was a great weekend for us at Long Beach (tying a career-best finish), so I’m really excited to get back in the NTT DATA car this week at Barber. We had great pit stops and strategy last weekend and I was extremely pleased with the result. I think I have a better understanding of what I need to do from the start to the finish of a race weekend in terms of getting the car right. We’re heading in the right direction as a team and I hope it’s the beginning of a string of very successful results and momentum.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “Long Beach was really great for the whole No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team after we finished second. It was our best finish so far this season, so it’s done a lot for team morale going into this weekend at Barber. Road courses are always a lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to racing one with the new car. My team has been really working hard over the past several weeks with back-to-back races and they have a really strong car ready to go. Barber is such a cool course and the fans there are always really excited to be there. It’s just a really fun event for everyone and I can’t wait to get on track.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “We’re coming from two top-10s in a row and the team is for sure on an upswing. Our test at Barber a few weeks back was cut short because of bad weather, but I’m hoping that we’ll keep the consistency and be competitive there as well. Barber Motorsports Park is a beautiful track where the fans are very passionate and always fill up the place. I’m looking forward to getting there later this week to hit the ground running with the No. 14 ABC Supply Chevrolet.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “Our preseason test went well at Barber. I think we were fortunate that we went to the first one because the weather cooperated and we got good track time with this car, unlike the open test. I think it’s going to be interesting to see what conditions we get as we go back for the race. I think the new aero kit it has met expectations. It seemed like at Long Beach it really helped passing. You were able to follow a lot closer. Barber has always put on a great race, but I think that this year it could be even better. Depending on tire degradation and things like that, I think this new car could put on a very exciting race at Barber. We have always been pretty strong at Barber but last year wasn’t that great for us. In general, it’s a place we should be good at and I hope we can carry on the progress that we have been making in terms of competitiveness. I think it could be a great weekend for us. The team has worked hard and we’ve been fortunate to sneak in a couple of good results so far, even with some difficulties, and hopefully we can keep that going. We are just going to keep our heads down, work hard and stay focused on the end goal. I certainly hope that we can keep this thing going and go into Indy with a lot of momentum as we have done. I’m really excited about where we are and I think things are looking pretty good.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 The Paysafe Car Honda): “We had a good test at Barber last month aboard the Paysafe car and I’m really looking forward to the race this weekend. Obviously, the conditions will likely be different from when we tested, but it was an encouraging test. I’m hoping to make up for the tough race weekend we had at Long Beach last weekend. The No. 19 Paysafe crew deserves a good result for all the hard work they’ve been putting in. Hopefully, I can give it to them this weekend.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “Hopefully, I can carry over the speed we’ve had so far this year but convert it into a solid result in Barber. We’ve been fast in both of my races so far, but unfortunately don’t have much to show for it. We had a test at Barber last month, though we didn’t get much running in. There will be a lot to learn on both my side and the engineering side that will take a lot of time and energy, but we’re up for the challenge.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “It’s been a tough start to the season so far. Our results don’t show the quality of the cars that we have had. We’re ready to turn that around and no better place than Barber Motorsports Park. Barber is definitely one of my favorite tracks, the fast corners and steep elevation changes are pretty unique and a lot of fun to drive. The track has been very good to me in the past, so I hope that trend will pick back up this weekend.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We had a really disappointing finish last week at Long Beach, but we’re going to use that disappointment to turn it into energy to fuel us to have a strong finish at Barber. We’ve had a busy few weeks and the No. 22 Menards Chevrolet team has worked hard to keep giving me great cars. It’s our first road course this season and it’s the first we’ll run with the new car. We learned a lot in the first three races, so we are ready. We won at Barber in 2016. It’s a beautiful track that always brings a lot of really great INDYCAR fans, so I know we’re all really looking forward to it.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “I’m really excited to be going back to Barber Motorsports Park this weekend. I’ve had some success there in the past and we have a little data from the open test last month to get us up to speed when the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet rolls out for Practice 1. Barber is unique with its elevation and technical demands and it really requires some patience to make your moves at the right time and place. Last weekend’s top 10 was a big morale booster for everyone on the Carlin team, myself included. I think if we can carry this momentum throughout the weekend and make some progress in qualifying, we can definitely put ourselves in a good spot at the checkered flag on Sunday.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda): “I definitely feel we have a lot of momentum on our side after finishing fourth in Long Beach. I honestly can’t wait to be back in the car at Barber and to keep improving. A year ago this weekend, I got the chance to compete in my very first Indy car race at Barber, so it’s going to be nice to be coming back to a track I have a little more experience at than others on the schedule. For me, my main goal is to focus on qualifying. I would really like to start getting higher on the charts for the start of the race. The Group One Thousand One car and crew have been great this year; we’re ready to show that again this weekend.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “I’m excited to head to Barber, especially after this last weekend in Long Beach, and I’m really happy to welcome Kerauno to the car as well. The team has been working hard and have a really good car that I’m happy with. Barber is one of the more difficult road courses we visit, but I know my Kerauno crew will be able to give us what we need to keep our momentum going. We took the points lead after last weekend and we’re not planning to give that up anytime soon.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “There’s only one goal for the (No.) 28 team at Barber this weekend, and that’s to grab our third victory at this track. The season started off OK with two top-fives, but then we took a hit with luck in Long Beach. We had a productive test at Barber a few weeks ago, but we were unable to run through our full test list due to weather. We have quite a lot of work to get done in the practice sessions in order to get the car into our ideal setup window before the race. I have no doubt the DHL team will work hard at it.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “We’ve tested at Barber twice but the second one was cut short due to the weather. Honestly, we don’t know yet how competitive we will be but we have some good data. At least the first test was productive for us, which will hopefully give us a good baseline to start with. Barber will be fun to drive with the new aero kit. The track is beautiful but it is very difficult to overtake. Again, I think tire management will be the key. I think that by the end of each stint, you will see a great battle with overtaking. Other than that, first we have to make the car fast. The weekend will be quite different conditions, temperature-wise, than when we tested there, which was very cold. I hope we have a good, strong package for the Honda Indy Grand Prix.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “I am looking forward to my first race weekend in Alabama. Unfortunately, we couldn’t complete the amount of laps that we had hoped for during the open test, but we are still optimistic. The Barber Motorsports Park is a fantastic facility and the track layout reminds me a little bit of the famous grand prix track in Spa-Francorchamps (Belgium), where I managed to score a win in F3 and a second-place finish in the Formula V8 World Series. I hope that’s a good omen, even if I am fully aware that things don’t happen overnight in the Verizon IndyCar Series. As I continue to learn more about the ‘red’ Firestone tires, we will hopefully be able to make the next step forward and get some good points with our No. 32 Binderholz Chevy.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “I enjoy racing at Barber Motorsports Park. The road course really suits my driving style. I love the smooth, flowing corners and it always gives the fans a good show. The track does a good job of putting together a nice package of other series on track for the fans to watch throughout the weekend as well. We had the chance to test the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet at Barber earlier in the season, but the weather didn’t allow us to get as much track time as we were hoping for, so we’re going to need to get up to speed quickly in practice. The first three races of the season have been great learning experiences for Carlin and even last weekend, despite not getting the results I was personally hoping for, we still learned a ton.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Excited to be heading to Barber Motorsports Park for our fourth race of the year. Barber is a track that I enjoy a lot. Although we didn’t really have any testing from our practice day that we spent there, we’re still fairly confident that we can use the information that we learned over the first three race weekends and have a competitive car. I know we’re eager to get back to racing and are looking for our best result so far.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Kerauno / Curb Honda): “We finished last weekend with a decent result considering the struggles we encountered in Phoenix and earlier in the weekend at Long Beach. I’m happy to put that behind us and focus forward. We’re sitting 10th in the championship and that’s not good enough, so this weekend we have to be on our A game and get a podium result. We’ve been there before at Barber and I know we can do it again.”