Nico Rosberg: Beating Lewis Hamilton would make World Championship all the sweeter
German is trying to hold off Mercedes team mate and bitter rival in driver’s standings
Nico Rosberg says beating bitter rival Lewis Hamilton would make a world championship win even sweeter. Photograph: Afp
“Hello,” Nico Rosberg says as he sticks his head around the door to Toto Wolff’s office in a sleek grey building in Brackley. The head of Mercedes’s dominant Formula One team is away for the day and Rosberg is not surprised to find me in Wolff’s place. Instead, the leader of the drivers’ championships has two simple requests.
“Would it be OK if we start early?” Rosberg asks before explaining that, in 45 minutes, he has an unexpected meeting as he strives to bolster a championship lead that his team-mate Lewis Hamilton has shrunk to a single point. Earlier this season Rosberg was 43 points ahead – but Hamilton is flying after four victories in the last five races. Their acrimonious relationship shadows a seesawing battle that appears to have tilted in favour of the British world champion.
Sporting celebrities are usually notorious for turning up late but Rosberg is also different in asking, politely, whether I would mind splitting our interview in two – with an initial 45 minutes being followed, after his meeting, with as much time as we need. He seems as friendly as he remains famously guarded. In the midst of his struggle not to relinquish control of the championship, Rosberg also tries to convey calm.
“No, no,” the 31 year-old says. “I’m not amazingly calm.”
Rosberg smiles wryly. His second-place finish at this month’s British Grand Prix was downgraded to third after he suffered a 10-second penalty for breaking radio transmission rules – but, even then, Rosberg attempted to sound coolly upbeat. He insisted he was in a “glass half-full” mood and that, “I’m feeling great. The battle is on with Lewis.”
In the quiet of Wolff’s office, he shrugs. “I’m just as human as everyone else. Sometimes people forget that when watching fast cars on TV. I also get nervous and I see the glass half-empty and I have self-doubt in the most difficult moments. For example last year in Austin when I lost the championship.”
Hamilton won the title last season much more comfortably than in 2014 but Rosberg reeled off successive victories in the final three races of 2015 before winning the first four this season. “I always reminded myself to stay within reality. It’s not possible for a run like that to go on forever. There will be difficult times again.”
After that swaggering start Rosberg hit trouble. He and Hamilton retired after colliding on the first lap of the Spanish Grand Prix – and then, on the final lap in Austria he caused another collision with his team-mate. Hamilton still won the race but Rosberg limped home in fourth place. “It’s very tough. Austria took longer to get over – because of discussions going on longer with the media [and an irate Woolf]. If I focused on points and championships I’d be massively disappointed because I was 40-whatever points ahead and now it’s one but I’m not focusing on it. So it’s not affecting me in any way.”
This seems hard to believe. Is “momentum” just another sporting cliche or does Rosberg acknowledge that Hamilton, driving with renewed purpose and fluidity, could be on an unstoppable charge? “Momentum does play a role. We’ve seen it with Lewis and I from 2014. We’ve always gone in waves. It’s strange but it must be time for his wave to be ending now. But, yeah, it’s difficult to have a race like Silverstone. Second place – I could have lived with that but to lose points and finish third? That’s tough.”
Have Rosberg and his engineers regained belief before the next race in Hungary on Sunday? “For sure. If there are setbacks, there comes a feeling of now we want to do it even more.”
Rosberg is the son of a Formula One world champion, Keke Rosberg, and I ask if he needs to win the title to regard his career as a success? “Um … no. I’ve been very successful and I hope to get more success. My dream is to win the world championship and I’m fighting for that. I’m giving it everything. This is a special period. It’s almost unique in F1 history – to have such a [DOMINANT]car for such a long period. Every race I can be on pole if I do well – and I can win. It’s unreal.”
Rosberg and Hamilton are over 60 points clear of their closest rival, Kimi Raikkonen, and 131 points ahead of Ferrari in the constructors’ championship. The bliss of driving such a superior car is plain but so is the pressure bearing down on Rosberg. This could be the best chance he will ever have of winning the title.
“I don’t think of it that way. It’s just a great opportunity. Of course it helps for motivation when you’re fighting for wins. If we were 12th and 13th it’s not the same. Fighting for the title is incredibly intensive. The learning curve is steep initially. I’ve learned a lot and made massive progress. The actual driving doesn’t change much but it’s such a difficult situation because you’re racing together and, at the same time, against each other. That’s a unique challenge.
“It’s very difficult to find the right line. I have a duty for the team and for them it’s so important to win the constructors’ title but where is the line to my ego and what I want? It’s always difficult. But this is my racing family.”
Acutely aware of the bitter rivalry between Rosberg and Hamilton, Mercedes began the season by switching six mechanics between their garages. “It was not easy,” Rosberg concedes. “I thought it’s going to be a challenge to get to know new people who were, in my eyes, the opposition but it’s helped team spirit and given us energy to remove this wall between the sides a little. We’ve shown it works well. Not always but most of the time.
Rosberg says “of course” when asked if Mercedes will refrain from using team orders to elevate one driver above the other. “Team orders is definitely the last thing I want so I hope it stays in this direction.”
If Rosberg becomes the world champion it will feel all the sweeter coming at the expense of his team-mate. “Sure, beating Lewis … he’s one of the sweetest opponents. He’s one of those opponents where you get the greatest satisfaction from beating him because he’s world champion.”
Does he dislike Hamilton? “I have huge respect for him but, well, we’re not best friends at the moment.”
I last interviewed Rosberg 10 years ago just before his F1 debut for Williams in March 2006. A few months later I interviewed Hamilton for the first time. He remembered his karting rivalry and friendship with Rosberg fondly and explained they used to share hotel rooms. Hamilton also told me, “Nico’s the most competitive person I’ve ever met.”
Rosberg nods. “That’s the difficulty between us now. We’re just both so competitive and that makes it difficult to be friends because the competition is so extreme. It was the same back then. How many pizzas could we eat? Who could run fastest from the lift to the hotel room? It would be competition all the way but there was not the surrounding influence with a team, the media and money. That makes it difficult now.”
In previous years Rosberg often avoided saying Hamilton’s name. He would talk about “the other guy” or “the other garage” but he began this season by stressing he saw “Lewis as the benchmark”. It seemed a candid statement he would use to improve himself.
“It was not a conscious thing but I see what you mean. I do recognise his achievements. He’s done some great things and he’s been beating me. I have to fight back and that’s the awesome challenge.”
Yet it must be less “awesome” when Hamilton is hailed as the “ballsy” and “brilliant” natural talent while Rosberg is seen as a technical grafter. “It’s just opinion. I don’t see it as a negative thing. Quite the contrary. I’m interested in that [TECHNICAL]side and put everything into that.”
Another cliche separating them is that Hamilton has more hunger, having grown up in modest surroundings in Stevenage. Rosberg, a German who speaks five languages, grew up in Monaco, where he still lives. A polished lifestyle has always defined him.
“You quoted Lewis saying he’d never met a more competitive person. Competitive equals hunger. I’ve always wanted to achieve things on my own – and I hated buying jeans with my dad’s money. I’d buy the minimum for whatever was necessary. My mum grew up after the war in Germany and she used to take cigarettes from the floor and smoke the last bit left by American soldiers. They had nothing. She grew up like that. And my dad is very money-conscious – strangely enough.”
We spoke about his father in our previous interview but Keke no longer manages Nico. “He gets intensely involved and emotional – a bit on the pessimistic side which makes it difficult. For parents the most important thing is to guide your kids and then let go. I’m thankful because my parents did that very well. In racing it’s been good for me he has taken a step back and let me make my mistakes and find my way.”
Rosberg could have ended our interview once he had to leave for his meeting. But, true to his word, he ambles back into Wolff’s office 15 minutes later. “Let’s talk about the British fans, Silverstone and the difficulties I’ve had,” he says of his turbulent last race. “It’s amazing because the British fans love motor racing more than anything. I saw that after the race when I went on stage. It was 100% support.”
There was also some booing of Rosberg. “There was the individual outspoken dislike towards me. It hurts. The stupid thing is that even when there are 100 people supporting and only two disliking you, you hear those two. That’s human nature – which sucks.”
Rosberg relaxes and talks about the books he likes – James Kerr’s Legacy, an examination of the All Blacks and their enduring success, is a recent favourite. “I’ve also been researching the skill of hiring people and interviewing. It’s an art. It’s so difficult to figure out in 15 minutes whether this is the right person. I’m quite good at reading people but I want to be better.”
We discuss our last interview, when Rosberg was only 20, and he laughs when I say that, like today, he asked me lots of questions. “Same thing!” he exclaims. “But I’ve changed so much in understanding who I am – my self-confidence. I’m more at peace with myself. Do you think I’ve changed?”
He nods when I suggest he is more careful now. “That’s for sure. I’ve always had difficulties with trust. I don’t give it out easily. I’m convinced it’s the right approach but I’ve also become more open, more social. I feel more comfortable interacting with people.”
Rosberg has a dry wit. Last year Bernie Ecclestone told him that, unlike the charismatic Hamilton, Rosberg was “not so good for my business”. He nods sagely. “I respect what he says and I will think about it – for two seconds.”
I laugh as Rosberg smiles. What does he love about Formula One? “It’s competition. It’s the battle. And it’s the winning. The winning is awesome.”