02 December, 2016

There could be no greater end than this

Alright, raise your hand if you predicted Nico Rosberg would retire from Formula 1 today.  Anyone?

I think that broadside was shared by everyone in the sport today as this year’s World Drivers’ Champion collected his trophy and announced his ride off into the sunset, but you can hardly blame him.

Well, most people can hardly blame him.  There are undoubtedly some out there who will attack him for what some claim is a cowardly retreat, in their eyes proving his title a fluke that even Rosberg knows would never happen again.  There really isn’t a way to prove either side objectively right or wrong, but to simplify the German’s legacy into such binary viewpoints is doing a disservice to a supremely talented driver.

How does one quantify or qualify such a career, though?  It would be all too easy to let this season (or even the last three) define Nico Rosberg merely for his battle with Lewis Hamilton.  Careers aren’t just made of the rivalry, or at least the rivalry’s most recent incarnation.

Remember, Lewis and Nico go back to their karting days as young children, both banking on a dream of a racing world that they could barely comprehend---Nico knew some of it because of his father’s involvement, but there were undoubtedly aspects of international Grand Prix racing that a father best leaves unsaid to a child whose aim is the stars.

The rivalry had always been relatively friendly between them, but the walls they would build between each other grew with every ascent up the racing ladder.  The divergence came to a head over the last three seasons in equal machinery, but don’t overlook their individual merits before they shared a constructor, either.

Rosberg’s GP2 championship, the first for the new series, solidified his talent to the naysayers who saw his ascendance aided by a steady hand from a former World Champion who happened to be his father.  He stood on the podium in nearly 50% of the races that year, winning five of them.

His fortunes seemed to flip when he retired from 50% of the races in his inaugural F1 season.  He would add a few more DNFs the next year, but then things seemed to look up.  Since 2008, he never finished outside of the top ten in the drivers’ standings.  His bold switch to the new-again Mercedes team netted him an emotional win in the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix, all while being paired with the un-retired Michael Schumacher.  This fact shouldn’t be forgotten either, but let’s not take it out of context.

His battles with Schumacher were noteworthy, especially since he bettered the legend in career wins at Mercedes while they were together (albeit 1–0), but look beyond the head-to-head.  Schumacher was undeniably more experienced and still very quick, but the two drivers’ feedback ultimately did more for the team in the long-run than who beat whom.  Rosberg proved his mettle against the seven-time champ, no doubt, but these were drivers on the opposite ends of their career to one another.

His time with the team would be used against him when Hamilton joined the squad and immediately set out beating the German.  Lewis, a World Champion in just his second season in F1, had already gone toe-to-toe with Schumacher’s last rival, Fernando Alonso, when they were together at McLaren.

Despite being with the team for a few years, Rosberg’s lack of speed in comparison to the Briton had to be frustrating.  That had to add to his annoyance as Hamilton shot to his second and third world titles---both of which were won over Rosberg in a car that he helped develop ever since the team returned to Formula 1.

So if you couldn’t already tell, this season’s triumph had a great deal of history behind it, and that’s saying nothing of the past collisions, verbal sparring, cap throwing and talk of conspiracies.

And that’s exactly why Rosberg chose today to announce his retirement.  In his message to the media at the FIA Prize Giving Gala, he spoke of the Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship as his ultimate goal throughout his 25 years of racing.  That was the top echelon for him, and he achieved it.

What made this decision right, though, is the timing.  If Rosberg had won the championship in his first year against Hamilton, I have no doubt we still would have seen the German racing in F1 the next year.  He would have been a different driver than what he ultimately became, but he would have been hungry for a second title.

What the last three years did to him, instead, was put him through an emotional ringer while destroying a friendly rivalry that existed since childhood.  It brought out the best and worst in him at a time when he started a family, and that took its toll.

Because of the struggle, because of its nastiness, because of his growth as a person and a driver, this championship was the perfect storm, an experience to fuel a lifetime of stories and perhaps nightmares.  The cumulative saga only sweetened a pot that already seemed pretty tantalizing.

And so, with his peers and the world’s media surrounding him, Rosberg knew that the perfect time to announce his retirement was when he held the championship trophy at long last.  His trophy.  His championship.  No worry of title defense, no questions of ongoing rivalries, no uncertainties about next year’s regulations, no endless cycle of globetrotting flights.  The journey was complete, and there could be no greater end than this, leaving as the champion of the world.

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