The fight for Formula 1 glory between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton was compelling for several reasons. The two gifted young men battling it out for the greatest prize in motorsport were teammates who refused to play a team game, each focused on his own success. It was a clash of very different personalities: on one side, Hamilton’s raw, instinctive talent; on the other, Rosberg’s steely, intellectual focus.
The ultimate cool move from Rosberg came at the end of the 2016 season. After finishing second to Hamilton two years in a row, Rosberg won the championship in the final race of the season. Then, five days later, he turned and announced that, at the age of 31, he was done with it all, walking away as champion, never to return.
Speaking to Revolution at Silverstone ahead of the Rolex British Grand Prix, Rosberg is a much more relaxed figure than when he was engaged in the never-ending battle for points and podiums. But the steely side returns when he is asked the obligatory question of whether he may at some stage be lured back into the driver’s seat. His answer is polite, but firm: “I do not mind people asking. I am used to recurring questions. I see it as a compliment if people want me to come back. But there is absolutely no way that I will.”
But does he not miss the intensity of competing? “It was great at the time, but now I’m very happy that my life is a bit more normal. When you are part of a team, the pressure’s always there, the intensity is always there. You are controlled, in many ways. Now it is all in my own hands and that is a great feeling.”
The Family Way
When he was competing, Rosberg’s watch choices were made for him, as team members were automatically made ambassadors for Mercedes sponsor IWC. Now that he is his own man, Rosberg has become the latest high-profile sports star to be named as a Rolex Testimonee. As a long-time Rolex-wearer this is a great fit, and once we have dealt with pesky questions about coming out of retirement, Rosberg is eager to show off the green-dial Submariner on his wrist, explaining how he bought it for himself five years ago when he first won the Grand Prix in Monaco – the German-born driver’s home since he was a baby.
“As a watchmaker Rolex’s reputation really speaks for itself,” he said. “It is one of the most iconic brands in the world and it also has an awesome history of involvement with sports. I am so proud to have joined legends like Roger Federer and Sir Jackie Stewart – it is not a marketing thing, it is truly a family. Rolex meet with you and they want to see how you think, how you would fit in. It’s really a magical thing.”
And nobody would doubt the depth of Rolex’s commitment to motorsport. It goes all the way back to the 1930s, when land-speed king Sir Malcolm Campbell drove a series of ever-faster Bluebirds until he broke the magic 300mph-barrier – all of which he did with a trusty Rolex Oyster strapped to the outside of his racing suit. Later came Rolex’s partnership with the Daytona International Speedway, followed in 1963 by the launch of the Oyster Perpetual Chronograph, which later adopted the name Daytona and never looked back. Rolex is now the Global Partner and Official Timepiece of both Formula 1 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Rolex has a habit of being in things for the long haul. The former F1 driver Mark Webber has been a Testimonee for two years, but that is nothing compared to Sir Jackie – this year, Rolex’s relationship with the tartan-clad F1 legend hits the incredible half-century mark.
The Competition Act
An ability to forge such strong, lasting relationships is something that appeals to Rosberg. This strikes a contrast to the constantly tense relationship with Lewis Hamilton. Much was made of the bad blood between the two, but they mostly managed to keep a lid on their emotions – at least in public. I ask Rosberg to imagine writing a list of all his favourite people in the world, starting with family and closest friends and working gradually downwards. How long would that list have to be before it included Lewis Hamilton?
“Oh, he doesn’t appear on the list,” Rosberg says flatly, before changing tack. “But if you told me to write a list of the people that I respect most, he would appear on that one. Because I have a lot of respect for him and his incredible achievements. What he does is phenomenal.”
But I want to know if there was ever much love to lose in the first place. Although it is a matter of record that they spent a lot of time together as teenagers, did Rosberg actually think of them as friends? “Best friends,” he says quickly, then repeats it more slowly: “Best friends. When we were racing go-karts, we were teammates and we shared a hotel room all year. We were great friends, but the rivalry was always massive, too. Then later it changed, and the friendship was gone. It’s a pity, but there’s no other way in that environment, when you are two guys fighting for the championship there is no way to be friends.”
Does he think there is any way they might one day sit down for a beer together? “Yeah sure, why not? It’s all just been because neither of us could accept losing. We both think we are better than the other and neither accepts coming second.”
He might not shout about it, but this desire to win runs incredibly deep. It is not a huge leap to suggest this may be in Rosberg’s blood, as his Finnish father Keke also won the F1 championship, back in 1982. This makes them the only father and son champions apart from Graham and Damon Hill – and, of course, Graham Hill sadly did not live to see his son’s victory.
When Nico won the title, the flamboyant Keke, himself known as more of a risk-taking driver, praised his son for the cerebral, scientific approach. “Not many people on the outside appreciate the effort that went into this,” he said, adding: “Nutrition, time differences, training, emptying the brain at the right time – it was all about performance.”
A great example of Rosberg Jr’s attention to the minutest detail is how, in the summer of 2016, he calculated that if he stopped cycling he could lose a kilo of muscle in his legs. “One kilo of bodyweight equals 4/100ths of a second per lap,” he said. “That is huge, sometimes the difference between first and second place. I stopped cycling and, after the summer, in Japan, I was on pole by 3/100ths of a second and I went on to win the championship.”
The Future’s Bright
He is still a massive fan of F1, watching every race with great interest. He says there is still work to be done to increase its appeal as a spectator sport, but he is hopeful that aerodynamic rule changes in 2020 should mean there is more overtaking, and that more needs to be done to level the playing field so that the middle-ranked teams have more of a chance to compete with the biggest teams.
If he doesn’t want to return as a driver, what about using his calculating mind to run an F1 team? “Yeah, I would love to, it’s a really cool job. The problem is the time commitment. It’s just as much as being a driver, and that is one of the reasons I stopped. It’s really intense and I’m not willing to work at that level of intensity again at the moment. Running a team is just as full-on, maybe even more so. Because they are all working at the weekend then, on Monday they are straight back in the office. At least as a driver you can go home and relax.”
Rosberg seems totally at ease with where he is now, having reached a pinnacle that only a tiny number of drivers realise. Does he have any regrets about his career? “Well I’m so lucky because I look at my career and it’s totally fulfilled. The way I went out is such a good feeling – I’m still on the wave now, and maybe I will be forever. Going out on such a high after achieving my dream is really wonderful, so I’m really glad I made the decision to retire when I did.”
Rosberg has two young daughters, aged one and three, and when he is not at home in Monaco, or travelling, he likes to relax at his family villa in Ibiza. He is a shareholder in Formula E, and is also involved with a number of start-ups, including the London-based What3Words, which aims to revolutionise mapping by dividing the entire world into individual squares 3m across and giving each one a unique three-word combination. That means no more looking at Google Maps and saying: “Well, it’s got to be around here somewhere…” It is one of many things that Rosberg is doing, and in all of them he hopes to make a difference. “What I do is all about impact, whatever I do I want to have an impact. A positive impact on our futures. Hopefully make returns as well, but most fundamentally impact. “
Rosberg is still in great shape, which he puts down to playing a lot of tennis. “I was in the Monaco national team when I was young,” he said. “It’s all about hand-eye coordination, the skills are very similar for driving, tennis, golf. The chances are, if you are a good driver you’ll be good at any of the other things as well.”
Maybe we could see a second career in tennis? “At one stage I thought I’m going for the Melbourne Grand Slam 2020, but I’ve given up on that. But no, honestly, I’m not that good. I am surprised how hard I’m finding it – maybe it’s my age.” Having just turned 33, Rosberg may have left it a little bit late to make it as a top-class tennis player. But as a young man with a family that he is clearly devoted to, he has a world of possibilities ahead of him. And for somebody so capable and focused, there are not many things that you would put past him.