Cape Town - In a twist stranger than fiction, Nico Rosberg announced his retirement from F1 only days after having fulfilled his lifelong ambition of winning the world title. The announcement came out of the blue, but there’s a long story behind it.
The world moves quickly.
One day Donald Trump is a political joke, the next day he’s US president-elect.
F1 champion retires
On 27 November 2016 Nico Rosberg became F1 world champion, the next day – or perhaps three days later; reports are unclear – he told team bosses Wolff and Lauda that he’s done with Grand Prix racing.
READ: Rosberg retires from F1 - Teams & drivers respond
The public announcement of this decision – to waive two years of his contract with Mercedes and leave F1 on a high – was nevertheless made on the eve of the FIA’s end-of-season crowning ceremony, barely five days after Rosberg had achieved his childhood dream of joining father Keke on the list of F1 world champions.
Under the rules, however, a driver does not formally become world champion until he has accepted the trophy at the governing body’s annual function, which this year was in Vienna. Technically, Rosberg has thus retired before he was formally anointed.
The shockwaves it unleashed throughout the F1 community was so seismic that it completely overshadowed the controversy ignited during the year’s final Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, when Hamilton backed Rosberg up into the chasing pack, in one last desperate bid by the then reigning champion to save his title.
READ: OFFICIAL - F1 champ Rosberg retires from racing
For that was the Hammer’s only hope, to win the race and keep Nico off the podium. Given the speed and reliability of the Mercs, it was a forlorn hope, one never likely to materialize.
But that didn’t keep Lewis from trying, nor should it have. Hamilton had every right in the world to run at the slowest possible pace, to still try and win whilst waiting for whatever would unfold behind him.
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Prost, for one, was always admired for saying clever things like: “My ideal is to get pole with the minimum effort and to win races at the slowest possible speed.”
Ah! But that’s different, is it not? To win at the slowest possible speed is OK, but to back your team mate into the pack is unacceptable. Say some.
Some questions for Rosberg
First question, then. If Hamilton was in a title fight with a driver from another team, would that have been OK to do what he did? The other guy is the enemy, not so? Yes.
But in racing, your own team mate is actually the bigger enemy.
That certainly was the case on 27 November as far as the Merc drivers were concerned. If it is OK, then, to back up drivers from other teams – because they are the enemy – then it must be OK, also, to back up an opponent who is an even bigger enemy, the colours he is wearing notwithstanding.
READ: 2016 Abu Dhabi GP - Rosberg foils Hamilton to claim maiden title
That, now, as long as you don’t hurt your own team in the process – which Hamilton didn’t. But we’ll come back to that.
Thumbs up to backing up, then – even though most viewers won’t, in fact, judge the principle so much, as the protagonists. In other words, answers will depend on who is involved.
If Hamilton was backing Vettel up, people who liked Lewis but disliked Seb would probably not have a problem with it.
But if there was hate for Hamilton and love for Vettel (or even Ferrari), opinions would swing through 180 degrees.
Verstappen is a good example. Some people despise him and can’t, for instance, get over his blocking of Räikkönen on Spa’s Kemmel straight. Dangerous, they cry.
Yet, when Senna did the very same thing (as he repeatedly did in 1993 against Prost and Schumacher at Silverstone) it was genius – if you liked Senna.
If you didn’t, it was another example of his “mad arrogance” and all the other epithets you would have liked to assassinate his character with.
So, it’s not necessarily the action of backing up that was being judged in Abu Dhabi. The offense was not driving slowly – or winning the race, and perhaps the championship, “at the slowest possible speed”, to quote Prost.
No. The offense, for some, was really that it was Hamilton who did the slow driving.
READ: Rosberg and Hamilton - best of enemies?
So, vitriolic ready-made generalisations were trolled out to justify the anger: unsportsmanlike, dirty driving, it’s not racing, it’s against the spirit of the game, dirty tricks, you name it – the last phrase from none other than Vettel, who shamelessly nixed team mate Webber’s new front wing when Seb smashed his own during free practice for Silverstone 2010.
Now, that’s a dirty trick, I would say. Or Vettel infamously passing Webber in Malaysia after the multi-21 call, when car no. 2 (Webber) slowed down as car no. 1 was instructed to finish behind him.
That’s worse than dirty, I would say. That’s low.
So, Seb’s not the one to talk, more so as he has banged into more cars during the course of 2016 than anybody else – twice just into his own team mate.
Yet, stones will be cast. In other sports they call this playing the man, instead of the ball.
And talking of such. The year is 2014 and Liverpool Football Club, gunning for their very first Premier League title, leads Crystal Palace by 3-0 with 11 minutes to play.
Parking the bus
Instead of parking the bus and shutting up shop, concentrating all the team’s efforts on defence to guarantee three points for a win, cavalier manager Brendan Rodgers pushes on in search of more goals.
But the push backfires and Palace scores three of their own in those last 11 minutes, leaving Liverpool with a point at game’s end, instead of three. Two points dropped, title gone.
Here’s the question, then: could you, as a fan, ever be happy with that?
Yes, if you happen to be a Manchester United supporter – but certainly not if you were a Liverpudlian.
Of what relevance is this to F1 racing, though?
Well, there comes a time when charging off into the distance is not the appropriate tactic. When defending your own turf is more important than attacking spaces out yonder. When covering up is more important than swinging spectacularly, leaving yourself open to a knock-out punch.
When a top-order batsman will refuse a run or three, to protect the weaker tail-ender from having to face hostile bowling, in situations where the opposing cricket team is on the verge of victory and your own instinct is to fight for survival.
Yet, nobody hollers: “That’s not cricket!”
READ: Rosberg defends 'understandable' Hamilton tactics
Crickey, it is cricket, sometimes at its very best and most courageous. Such a batsman, so spectacular, perhaps, in different circumstances, ain’t looking for victory, but for the best possible outcome – like Atherton did in 1995 at the Wanderers, saving the test for England against South Africa with a magnificent 185.
It wasn’t majestic. But it was epic. It secured the best possible outcome.
Which is precisely what Lewis Hamilton was after when he started to back Rosberg up in Abu Dhabi.
He did it, not for the team, as the team had already achieved the best possible outcome by winning the manufacturer’s championship earlier in the year, and at a gallop.
No. He did it for himself.
And why not? Like cricket, motor racing has a split character. Some things are done for the team; others for the individual, by the individual.
Fighting for himself
In Abu Dhabi, with the team’s quest already fulfilled, Lewis was fighting for himself, just as it ought to have been. Would it not have smelled of abdication if he had romped off into the distance, dragging Rosberg with him for a certain Mercedes 1-2 and, with it, guaranteed title glory for Nico?
Where’s the pride? Where’s the fighting spirit to defend what, at that point, still belonged to Lewis? He did it and did it exceptionally well, if not with the desired outcome, seen from Hamilton’s perspective.
So, unsportsmanlike, the detractors say? And not in the spirit of Peter Collins handing his car to Fangio, in 1956, when the Maestro’s mount became unstuck and Juan Manuel was left on the sidelines to see which of the selfsame Collins or Jean Behra would usurp the title he had won the year before with Mercedes?
“Unselfish” and “noble” are the words used to describe Collins’s generosity.
And now you want Hamilton to be equally as “unselfish” and “noble” as Collins was and hand, if not his car, then his title on a platter to Rosberg?
Here’s some news for you. Collins himself typified his decision as a pragmatic one, rather than noble and gallant. He suddenly realised, he said, that he would be an instant celebrity if crowned world champion, and that people would make demands of him that his playboy lifestyle on a yacht in Monaco was not geared to accommodate.
Hamilton has also been accused of a playboy lifestyle. Straight after Abu Dhabi, Keke Rosberg talked of his son’s hard work and focus versus Hamilton’s jet setting between Europe and the US.
And that’s fine.
But let’s make one last point about sportsmanlike behaviour on track. Going as slowly as possible and backing others up is nowhere near as morally skewered and depraved as driving fellow competitors off the track, let alone taking a fellow protagonist out of the race deliberately, to prevent him from scoring or winning the title.
Complaints = strategy?
Yet, that’s exactly what Rosberg has been up to, over the last couple of years. In 2012 already, Hamilton was gunning for an inside gap in Abu Dhabi and Rosberg quite blatantly pushed him off, all four wheels of the Hammer’s McLaren kicking up dust on dirty off-track tarmac.
Yet, Rosberg had the gall to complain that Hamilton had breached circuit limits!
Two years later, and Rosberg ran wide into a Monegasque escape road after ostensibly locking the right front whilst braking for Mirabeau. Sitting on provisional pole, he was the last man to worry about Hamilton having to abort a lap that was already a tenth up on Rosberg after Sector One.
Suspicion was thick in the air, with scholars of the game reviving memories of Schumacher’s ignominious 2006 attempt to steal pole in the Principality from Alonso, by faking an accident and parking his Ferrari at Rascasse.
READ: How an F1 veteran predicted Hamilton's antics ahead of the Abu Dhabi GP
Later in 2014 Rosberg also clashed with Hamilton at Spa, to put the Brit out of the race, after which the German was booed on the podium.
And so on to Spain 2016, when Nico exited Turn 3 in the wrong engine mode, losing ground to the Hammer like a man in reverse.
Hamilton immediately gunned for the inside line again, catching hand over fist, but so vicious was Rosberg’s defence that Lewis had to spear off track, just to avoid contact.
In the process, with all four wheels running on grass, he lost control at 280 km/h, spun and collected Nico’s car as well.
Had he passed, and it’s safe to assume that Hamilton would have won, with Rosberg second.
That’s a seven points gain; at year’s end, Rosberg nixed the title by five.
That was not the end, though. In Austria, Nico again turned devious by basically straightening Hamilton out in Turn 2 and punting him off on the last lap, when the pair was dicing for the lead.
Toto Wolff mumbled something about failed electronics on Rosberg’s brake-by-wire system but couldn’t explain to Johnny Herbert why Nico had also failed to turn the steering wheel at the appropriate point, which must have disturbed Hamilton, though not as much as having been blamed by Lauda, after the debacle in Spain, of causing the accident by being “overly aggressive”.
Good lordy, Niki. What happened to Senna’s “if you don’t go for a gap, you’re not a racing driver anymore”?
But then the old timers never liked super-talented youngsters. Jackie Stewart despised Senna and he’s a big-time Hamilton basher.
“A little ballerina,” the Scot fumed after Abu Dhabi. “Mercedes should hit him with an ultimatum of ‘do it our way or be excused’ from the team.”
Is that so, Sir Jackie?
And what exactly was the “Mercedes way” in Abu Dhabi? To order and instruct Hamilton – twice – to speed up.
What for? To protect the race win, against Vettel? Hamilton was more than capable of doing that, as it turned out in the end, and the team knew it at the time.
Chasing the pack
So, what Merc in effect told Hamilton was to speed up so that the chasing pack would not threaten Rosberg, thereby ensuring that the title would be won by a German, driving a German car.
For it’s not as if a Mercedes driver wouldn’t have won the title, if Rosberg failed to do so.
So, no sanction to Nico in Spain. None in Austria. And a blatant effort to use the might and authority of the three-pointed star to influence the outcome of the championship in Rosberg’s favour.
No wonder Lewis suggested that the team should just let them race.
Even before Collins handed his car to Fangio, back in 1956, Luigi Musso was ordered to do so, by the Ferrari team. Musso refused, as he was entitled to do. Hamilton refused, as he was entitled to do.
And sometimes you have to. Das Volk would have been better off if they, too, had refused to blindly obey orders and instructions 77 years ago.
But that’s not the German way, that’s not in the German soul to question authority, even if the latter might be diabolical. It is expected of people to follow orders.
Toto Wolff thus made it clear that there was the possibility that Lewis might, well... be fired? Now that Rosberg has retired, Mercedes has – wisely – drawn a line underneath the “public disobedience” episode. The company can ill afford to lose both of its drivers in one single go.
So, all is forgiven.
Lewis is in any case of a freer, more independent spirit than the rest of his team, or indeed the whole of the F1 paddock. There simply was no reason for him to “open the door” and lead Rosberg along a paved stairway to heaven. So, he didn’t.
In fact, it is this iron in Hamilton’s soul – and the speed in his car – that has led to Rosberg’s retirement.
What with all those MGU-H problems Hamilton had in the course of 2016, and numerous bad starts, massive grid penalties in China and Russia and Spa, the accident in Baku quali, the engine failure in Malaysia when he was leading, and – yes – that crash in Spain . . .
What with all that, and Rosberg – who drove, by his own admission, better than ever and quite brilliantly at times – could only beat the Hammer by five points!
So, what are the chances that he would have been able to put one over Lewis again?
Not good, Nico decided. And he wasn’t prepared to go through it all again – all the training, thinking, focussing, analysis, the nerves, the fret, the energy, the soul-destroying tension, all the while putting his young family through some testing times as well – just to come short again, as he previously did in 18 years of racing against Lewis Hamilton.
For once, he has beaten his old nemesis, a man who used to be his best friend, long ago when they were young, even though Rosberg came from Monaco’s best and most glamorous inner courts and Hamilton rose from Stevenage’s dark and cold desolation 50 km north of central London; rich boy, poor boy.
But both world champions now.
And in the end, that is as it should be. All’s good, except that Mercedes might have a hard time making the right decision, as who to put in the reigning champion’s seat for next year.
They don’t have a lot of time, mind you. The world, nowadays, moves quickly.