Nico Rosberg’s decision to walk away from Formula One with the taste of the podium champagne still in his mouth is a conspicuously brilliant one, not least because the newly crowned world champion took everybody with an interest in the sport – except, presumably, his nearest and dearest – by complete surprise.
Perhaps the most graceful consequence of his decision is that it allows him to retire on equal terms with his father, Keke, who won his sole world championship in 1982. It was Keke who put Nico in a go-kart at the age of six, and who nurtured and mentored his son through the early years, as could be seen in a charming little home movie which was widely viewed this week.
Keke got out of the sport unharmed, having tamed the 1,500-horsepower monsters of F1’s first turbo era, and he and his wife, Sina, will be delighted that their son has managed to negotiate his way through a career on the track and emerge unscathed. Even though the odds on that are much better than they were in Keke’s time, and incomparably better than for earlier generations, thanks to the modern emphasis on safety in the design of the cars and the layout of the circuits, there will still be a sense of relief.
It may also be that one of the reasons Nico is getting out is that he wants to make sure that his wife, Vivian, their 15-month-old daughter, Alaïa, and any further children can live their lives without the stress of knowing that he is heading off every couple of weeks to hurl a car around a track at speeds up to 230mph.
The new champion is 31 years old. He has been racing for a quarter of a century and has spent the past 11 years in Formula One, at the very pinnacle of the profession. He won the world title, which is something achieved by only 33 of the 742 men and women who have started grand prix races since the series began in 1950. His ratio of wins to races – 23 to 206 – is better than respectable for the modern era, particularly when his team-mate during his winning years was a world champion in his absolute prime.
But a factor in his decision must be the knowledge that he is not the fastest driver in Formula One, that his Mercedes colleague, Lewis Hamilton, has the edge in outright speed, and that next year he would be on something close to a hiding to nothing. He might not want to spend a year defending his title under further critical scrutiny from those who believe that his success was made possible only by a couple of engine failures on Hamilton’s car.
On Rosberg’s behalf it could be said that he was outstanding in terms of one-lap pace in qualifying, his 30 pole positions underlining his ability to get the most from his car in those controlled conditions. He was particularly good at working closely with his engineers, an attribute more vital than ever in the technology-saturated environment of Formula One in the 21st century, when drivers need to be able to absorb and carry out complex procedures relating to a variety of performance parameters while racing wheel to wheel with their rivals.
That talent struck the Williams staff when he took their engineering-aptitude test before joining the team in 2006, earning the highest marks they had ever seen. This season it enabled him to get to grips with the problems of coaxing the Mercedes W07 off the start line, something that initially eluded Hamilton and cost the Englishman – who fluffed five starts during the season – very dear. It is of no little significance that his engineers and pit crew held him in high esteem.
Some will no doubt claim that the decision betrays a certain lack of hunger. In a sense, that might be true. Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost, Sebastian Vettel, Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna and Hamilton all won three or more titles. Hamilton, also 31, yearns for a fourth, Fernando Alonso, 35, for a third. Fangio retired at 47, Brabham at 44, Schumacher at 43, Piquet at 39, Prost at 38, Lauda at 36 and Stewart at 34.
But although Rosberg’s competitive nature was hardly in doubt during his time in F1, he is now clearly satisfied with what he achieved. And it should not be overlooked that a man who turned down the offer of a place to study aeronautical engineering at Imperial College in London in order to pursue his racing ambitions might well have interesting and original ideas about what he wants to do with the rest of his life.
A personal memory is of seeing Rosberg on a flight home during his early days in F1, barely out of his teens, quietly taking his seat in economy class wearing a logo-free T-shirt and jeans, with none of the aura of entitlement that young sports stars tend to acquire along with their first contracts. There was an air of natural modesty and unpretentiousness about him that had clearly survived a privileged upbringing in Monaco and he has remained unaffected by his subsequent success.
What his decision will do is deprive the paddock of a man whose ready smile and engaging manner made him easy to like. The world of Formula One brings such pressures to bear on an individual’s temperament that it is hardly a surprise when behaviour is distorted. But Nico Rosberg never gave a sign of believing himself to exist on another plane from those who tightened his wheel nuts or asked him for an autograph. While taking himself, as he put it in his statement, to the peak of the mountain, he remained identifiably a member of the human race.
“I’m following my heart,” he said when breaking the news of his retirement. “My heart is telling me this.” Good for him.