2014 F1 championship showdown preview: Nico Rosberg

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Driver: Nico Rosberg
Age: 29
F1 Debut: Bahrain 2006
Starts: 165
Wins: 8
Pole Positions: 14
Podiums: 26
Championships: 0 (Best – 6th in 2013)
2014 Record: 5 wins, 317 points (2nd)

ABU DHABI – Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton may have raced as teammates when they were kids in go-karts, but their careers have not been totally parallel since then. They may both now drive a Mercedes and be in with a shot of winning the 2014 Formula 1 drivers’ championship, but this is Nico’s first opportunity to win the title – it’s Lewis’ fifth.

Rosberg was the first winner of the GP2 Series back in 2005, beating Heikki Kovalainen to the title, and managed to secure a drive with Williams for 2006. Despite posting the fastest lap of the race on his debut in Bahrain, he scored just four points in his rookie season. He did enjoy a more successful 2007, though, finishing ninth in the drivers’ championship and establishing himself as the team leader at Williams.

While Hamilton stormed to his first world title in 2008, Rosberg scored points on just five occasions. Notably though, two were podium finishes, coming third in Australia and second in Singapore. The race in Melbourne marked the first time that Nico and Lewis had finished on the podium together in F1, sparking a hearty celebration between them in the cool-down room. How times have changed…

The change in the regulations for the 2009 season worked in Williams’ favor, allowing the team to use the double diffuser to good effect as its rivals unsuccessfully questioned its legality. Rosberg enjoyed a more consistent season, finishing seventh in the drivers’ championship. He had done enough to secure a move to the works Mercedes team that had taken over the championship-winning Brawn operation for 2010.

Now with the might of a manufacturer behind him, Rosberg began to excel. He made a superb start to the season, scoring two podium finishes in the first four races to sit second in the championship. Although only one more top three result would follow that year, he finished an excellent seventh in the standings with nearly double the score of his teammate, Michael Schumacher.

2011 and 2012 were more difficult years for Rosberg, but the latter season did bring an important breakthrough: his first win. In China, Nico dominated proceedings to claim his first victory in Formula 1, being one of seven different drivers to win the first seven races of the year. A run of six pointless races at the end of the season meant he finished just ninth in the championship, and with Hamilton racing alongside him at Mercedes in 2013, many expected a one-sided teammate battle to unfold.

Just as Jenson Button held his own against Lewis though, Rosberg did much the same. In a year that saw Mercedes finally start to hold its own at the front of the field, he picked up two wins in Monaco and Great Britain, the latter coming when Sebastian Vettel’s car ground to a halt. In a year that was dominated by Red Bull, Rosberg did well to win as and when he did, as well as scoring points in all but three races. In the final standings, he was just 18 points shy of Hamilton’s final total.

And so we come to 2014. The seismic change in the technical regulations allowed Mercedes to rise to the very top of the pecking order, producing one of the greatest cars that the sport has ever seen. In the hands of Hamilton and Rosberg, it has been put to very good use – heading into this weekend’s race in Abu Dhabi, they have scored 15 wins, 17 pole positions and 651 points. It’s a remarkable record.

For Rosberg, this year has been more consistent than spectacular. Unquestionably, this has been the best season of his career, yielding five victories, with his win at the German Grand Prix in July being particularly poignant. A German driver racing for a German team winning at Hockenheim, just one week after the national football team had won the World Cup? That was remarkable enough. Throw in the fact that Nico had also got married and signed a new long-term deal with Mercedes in the same two-week period, and you can see why he looked to be on top of the world.

Just one week later in Hungary, though, the cracks in Rosberg’s title bid began to show. The argument that many had – this writer included – for this year’s championship was that Rosberg’s strength over Hamilton was the way in which he does not let his emotions get the better of him. However, when the Briton refused to let his faster teammate through at the Hungaroring and eventually beat him onto the podium, Rosberg was fuming.

The one month summer break gave Nico the chance to calm down, yet all he did was stew over the issue. When he arrived at Spa for the Belgian Grand Prix, he seemed stressed in the early media sessions. Something was clearly up, and it soon became obvious just what on the second lap of the race when the two drivers made contact after Rosberg refused to pull out of an overtake at Les Combes. He went on to finish the race in second place while Hamilton retired.

In the aftermath of the race, Rosberg told the team that he was still upset about what had happened in Hungary (one month ago) and didn’t pull out to “prove a point”. Mercedes’ management disciplined Rosberg, but he still had the mathematical advantage at the top of the standings.

Yet the psychological impact of the incident turned the tables at the top of the championship. Next time out at Monza, Rosberg was in a strong position, leading the race after Hamilton made a poor start and dropped to fourth. However, when Hamilton began to reel him in, Rosberg cracked, making a mistake and allowing his teammate through en route to the race win.

A technical issue in Singapore forced the German driver to retire after just a few laps, and he lost out to Hamilton whilst leading in both Japan and the USA, with a mistake in Russia on the first lap costing him a shot at the race win. The end result? A 24-point deficit heading to the penultimate round of the year in Brazil.

Just when he needed it though, Rosberg refound his form, winning a race for the first time since the German Grand Prix and soaking up all of the pressure that Hamilton applied. Although the Briton is still the overwhelming title favorite, the result did greatly increase Rosberg’s number of outs for Abu Dhabi.

Rosberg has already broken the record for the most number of second places in a single season by any one driver, and he has perhaps been less impressive than Lewis. However, he would still make a very worthy champion. Much like Keke Rosberg’s (Nico’s dad) win in 1982, it could be that the man lurking in the shadows will be illuminated under the lights in Abu Dhabi on Sunday night.