For a driver who strove with such fierce diligence to win the world championship Nico Rosberg has given up its fruits very quickly; champion on Sunday, retired on Friday, he was not even a six-day wonder.
For many years he has been one of the more anonymous of Formula One’s leading drivers. Now, finally thrust into the spotlight of glory, it is almost as if he could not stand the glare.
In truth Rosberg knows how almost impossibly difficult it was to win the F1 title, how repetitive luck as well as formidable skill played their parts. In all likelihood he would always have remained a one-time winner. His achievement, though, is monumental. He not only climbed the mountain but left Lewis Hamilton in his shadow. That is Hamilton, the three-times world champion, faster and more race-crafty and the man who had beaten him almost on a consistent basis for 16 years.
It was Hamilton’s greatness that defined Rosberg’s championship as a worthy one; as Nico’s father, Keke, would ruefully testify, the crown does not always go to the quickest driver.
Nico Rosberg took 10 years in Formula One to finally win his prize – only Nigel Mansell took longer, with 12. By doing so Rosberg confounded the many people who said he would never be capable of prevailing against Hamilton over a season, and with 21 races we have just seen the longest campaign in F1 history. He has also been acclaimed, belatedly, in his own country following the second place in Abu Dhabi that got him over the championship line.
He was born in Wiesbaden, in Germany, 31 years ago but left with his family to live in Monaco at the venerable age of four weeks, and has lived there ever since, apart from when he is at his mansion in Ibiza.
For Germans, Michael Schumacher was always the great racing hero. Schumacher was the driver with more wins and championships than any other. Crucially, though, he also had the common touch. After Schumacher there was the four-times winner Sebastian Vettel. The quiet and cerebral Rosberg failed to connect there in the same way. There is something essentially international about the man who speaks German, English, French, Italian and (a little less fluently) Spanish.
The introverted image is a little misleading. Last year Nicola Pohl, of the German newspaper Bild, told me: “He’s actually very funny on social media. He has jokes and he is teasing all the time.” The picture, though, was one of a calculated driver who has worked immensely hard, always talking to his mechanics and engineers, approaching each circuit with the care of a cartographer.
Nor did his racing take up residence in the memory. When it came to wheel-to-wheel battle he was second to Hamilton, though his vital passing move on Max Verstappen during the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi was accomplished and courageous.
Rosberg was a high-class journeyman, an eliminator of mistakes, usually two or three tenths of a second a lap slower than Hamilton but more likely than his celebrated Mercedes team-mate to extract the absolute maximum out of himself in every grand prix.
His gentle manner also belied an essential toughness. When Schumacher joined Mercedes people speculated he would wipe the track with Rosberg but it did not happen. And now he has come out on top against one of the quickest drivers the sport has seen.
There was also a keen intelligence. When Rosberg joined Williams and took their mandatory engineering aptitude test, he scored the highest marks in the team’s history. He turned down the opportunity to study engineering at Imperial College London to pursue a career in racing. “Everything relates to physics and maths,” he once said. He reads the business pages for fun.
He started karting when he was six and it was while racing karts at 15 that he came up against Hamilton. The German was behind, as usual, but the two became friends, playing football, eating ice creams and pizzas, competing on unicycles and telling each other how cool it would be if they ended up in F1.
Rosberg moved to German Formula BMW in 2002, and won the championship. He moved to Formula Three and tasted F1 when he first tested for Williams in 2004. He won the GP2 title in 2005 and at the end of the year was confirmed as a Williams driver for 2006. The following year he was a seven-times points winner, including a best of fourth. His first podium came in 2008.
He joined Mercedes in 2010, winning his first race in 2012. Hamilton joined him the following year. They got on well at first but then a series of clashes soured the relationship.
Then, in Austin last year, Hamilton won the title, barging Rosberg wide on turn one as he did so. Rosberg took it badly and the race was followed by the famous cap-throwing incident. Rosberg went away and had a long think. He returned a tougher competitor and a championship-winning driver.