The dust has settled on the 2016 Formula One World Championship. After 21 rounds, Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg has been crowned the series champion for the first time in his 10-year career. An accomplishment so sweet, that only 5 days later, he would announce his retirement from the sport at the youthful age of 31. And yet, the debates rages on as to the deservingness of the 33rd champion’s claim to Formula One’s highest honor. There are many who claim that Rosberg won, not of his own volition but by blind luck, and that the German driver is intrinsically undeserving of calling himself a champion.
Unquestionably, Rosberg had a good deal of help along the way. For starters, he had only one legitimate competitor for the title; Mercedes teammate and 3-time series champion, Lewis Hamilton. He and Hamilton had one of the most dominant cars in Formula 1 history; a car that gave them the capacity to take 20 pole positions, 19 race victories and 33 podium positions in 21 race weekends. He also benefitted from the near bulletproof reliability of his car over the course of the season, a luxury not always enjoyed by his teammate.
Formula 1 awards 25 points for a race victory, 18 points for 2nd place, and 15 points for 3rd, so from the moment the checkered flag fell on the Malaysian Grand Prix, Rosberg would need just 1 race victory, three second places and a third in order to render his lead insurmountable and capture his maiden championship; seemingly a straightforward task in the best car on the Formula 1 grid.
Throughout the 21 race weekends, Rosberg’s only bout with unreliability came in Austria, where he was handed a 5-place grid penalty for having to change a broken gearbox (forcing Rosberg to start from 6th on the grid on Sunday). Hamilton, on the other hand, had 4 race weekends adversely affected by engine issues, though the damage was mainly affecting his qualifying position. The reigning champion; Hamilton, was forced to start from the last row of the grid twice, in China and Belgium, and from 10th on the grid in Russia because of various issues with his engines. The biggest blow, however, came in the series’ 16th round in Malaysia, where the Britton’s engine failed from the lead of the race, costing Hamilton 25 world championship points and awarding Rosberg a 23-point advantage with just 5 races remaining. The Mercedes car was so strong compared to the rest of the field, that a 23-point advantage would be very difficult for Hamilton to overcome with such little time to do it in.
However, to suggest that Rosberg ‘backdoored’ into a championship or that Rosberg’s season was somehow unbefitting of a champion is to do both he, and the sport, a massive disservice. When the gauntlet was thrown down, when it was all on the line, Nico was able to pull out the performance that he needed in order to secure his championship. The Rosberg of previous years likely would have wilted under the pressure of the 23-point lead he enjoyed at the conclusion of the Malaysian Grand Prix. Rosberg, after all, had opportunities to put himself on top of the F1 world in each of the previous 2 campaigns, coming up just short in both instances. And in both seasons, he could point to small mental mistakes when Hamilton was pressurizing him as the beginning of his undoing. In 2014, Rosberg gave up a race win in Italy by twice outbreaking himself into the first corner with Hamilton hounding him in his mirrors. In the next race, in Belgium, Rosberg would make contact with his teammate in a desperate attempt to overtake, taking Hamilton out of the race and damaging his own car in the process; an incident that seemed to take all confidence away from the German in the closing stages of the championship. Last season, in 2015, Rosberg struggled with consistency in the early stages of the season, affording Hamilton to a lead he would never relinquish.
But even then, he had races where he could have proven himself to a greater degree. In the late stages of the United States Grand Prix, Rosberg, again from the lead, made a mistake running wide and allowing Hamilton through to win the race. The race victory on that day secured Lewis’ 3rd championship and seemed a confirmation that Rosberg may never have what it truly took to put himself on top of the F1 world. However, in the closing stages of the 2016 season, Rosberg dealt with immense pressure in several different instances; moments where if he didn’t convert, his dreams would have fallen by the wayside yet again. Three laps, in particular, stand out from Rosberg of years past. These three laps are where Rosberg truly secured his victory.
Lap 1: Rosberg’s Second Q3 Run – Japan
One week after the Malaysian Grand Prix, Formula 1 descended upon Japan’s Suzuka Circuit for the 17th round of the championship. With just moments left in Saturday’s final qualifying session, ahead of the race on Sunday, Lewis Hamilton held the fastest lap and appeared to be set to head the pack to begin the next day. Under current regulations, overtaking is rather difficult in Formula 1, doubly so if the man you are trying to overtake has the same car under him as you do, as is the case with Rosberg and Hamilton. In fact, between Rosberg and Hamilton, the man who headed his teammate after turn 1 came out on top every single weekend this season. Therefore, it was vital for Rosberg, should he hope to take victory the next day, to pull something magical out of his hat in the dying moments in Japan.
And the German delivered, with Nico managing to edge his teammate by just 13 hundredths of a second, putting himself on the pole. Those 13 hundredths made all the difference the next day. With overnight showers in Japan ahead of the race, the Suzuka circuit was left with damp patches in the time leading up to the Grand Prix on Sunday. Rosberg, who started from the dryer, cleaner left side of the grid was able to get off the line without a problem. Hamilton, forced to the damper right side of the grid because of Rosberg’s last-second improvement in qualifying bogged down, slipping to 7th place by the first corner, and allowing Nico to run away with the race victory. Hamilton, slowed by having to come through the pack, managed to finish 3rd, costing Hamilton 10 more points at a time where he desperately needed to be making up ground on his teammate. Had Rosberg been on the damp side of the grid, as would have been the case had he not pulled out his monster lap at the end of qualifying, would their roles on Sunday have been reversed? The answer – of course – is unclear, but what is clear, is that if the roles had indeed reversed, Rosberg’s position heading into the season’s final 4 races would’ve been significantly less enviable.
Because of the 33-point lead, he enjoyed following his victory in Japan, Rosberg needed just 3-second place finishes and 1-third place finish in the remaining races to be crowned champion; a fairly straightforward task with the best car on the grid under him.
Lap 2: Rosberg’s Second Q3 Run – Mexico
In the moments leading up to Nico’s final qualifying attempt in the season’s antepenultimate round, the German was having arguably his worst weekend of the season. He was significantly off pace set by his teammate in all 3 practice sessions. And with just minutes remaining in the final qualifying session, Rosberg was looking up at not just Lewis Hamilton, but also the Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen – two difficult men to overtake on Sundays. A 4th position the next day would deal a potential felling blow to Rosberg’s championship hopes, as it would allow teammate Hamilton to once again control his own fate with respect to the championship. With the difficulty of overtaking in the current F1 climate, and the fact the Rosberg is, admittedly, not the best wheel-to-wheel racer on the grid, the pressure was certainly on to once again pull something out of nowhere to steady his position. And again, with the pressure turned all the way up, Rosberg managed his best lap of the entire weekend, improving his time and, while not beating his teammate, pipping the two Red Bull cars, and placing himself 2nd on the grid for the race on Sunday. From 2nd on the grid, Rosberg managed to bring his car home in that very same position the next day, preventing Lewis Hamilton from taking too many points out of his advantage and keeping his fate in his own hands with just 2 races remaining. It wasn’t a perfect weekend for the German by any means, but he successfully limited the damage in what was an otherwise miserable weekend for him. The Rosberg of the past, who was prone to mistakes under pressure, wouldn’t have been able to pull those last-second heroics on Saturday to prevent a second-row start, especially with seemingly everything having been going against him to that point in the weekend. But 2016 Rosberg was a different man to the Rosberg of times past, a stronger man, a champion in waiting.
Lap 3: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – Lap 20
Rosberg came into the season’s final race needing just a 3rd place finish in order to secure his 1st World Championship. With the best car on the grid under him, and after having qualified 2nd behind Hamilton on Saturday, things looked to be going swimmingly for the German. However, with Hamilton controlling the pace at the front of the race on Sunday, and after a slow pit stop in the early stages of the race, Nico found himself behind the Red Bull of Max Verstappen. Verstappen had yet to complete a pit stop and was now preventing the German from putting any distance between himself and a 4th place that would be the end of his championship dreams. After following in Verstappen’s wake for a handful of laps Nico got the call over his radio that a pass was critical, and that his race could be ruined if he failed to overtake the Dutchman in short order. On the very same lap that the transmission came through his radio, Nico launched his Mercedes up the inside of Verstappen, initially failing to get a move done, but finally getting by Verstappen on the next straight. For Rosberg, who has been so often criticized for his wheel-to-wheel driving ability, it was a fitting way to rid himself of his demons. Overtaking one of the most difficult drivers on the grid to pass, with everything on the line, Nico proved himself worthy of being a champion.
Nico Rosberg is Formula 1 World Champion, 34 years after his father Keke accomplished the same feat. He became world champion by beating one of the most successful competitors in Formula 1 history, Lewis Hamilton to the title. A man with whom he has been competing since he was a young teenager, just starting out in the motorsport world. Nico had his share of luck along the way, there is no question about it. The circumstances broke just right for the German to take advantage of. But make no mistake, being in that position to make the most of those circumstances takes a championship level effort. Hamilton’s mechanical woes put Rosberg in an advantageous position, but many a man would’ve wilted under the pressure of having a 3-time World Champion hounding them down the stretch. Rosberg himself likely would’ve cracked in times past. But when the time to put up or shut up came this season, Nico was ready. He laid everything on the line when it mattered the most and he converted when he needed to. That is what makes Nico Rosberg worthy of being a champion.