Friday 22 September 2017

A big decision for Nico, and a brave one

Walking away from a £30m salary isn't easy but Rosberg had family and health as priorities

Nico Rosberg fulfilled a lifelong ambition to be crowned F1 World Champion in Abu Dhabi last Sunday. His decision to walk away from the sport then sent shockwaves around the world of motor racing. Photo: David Davies/PA
Nico Rosberg fulfilled a lifelong ambition to be crowned F1 World Champion in Abu Dhabi last Sunday. His decision to walk away from the sport then sent shockwaves around the world of motor racing. Photo: David Davies/PA

David Kenedy

The newly minted world champion, Nico Rosberg, shocked the motorsport world with the news that he is to retire from racing with immediate effect.

And yet in the cold light of day it is completely understandable. As he said himself, he climbed the mountain, fulfilled his boyhood ambition and wants to exit at the peak. He has a wife and baby, so what better time to bow out than when you're fit and healthy?

His dad Keke made his F1 debut in 1978 with Theodore, became world champion in 1982 (winning just one Grand Prix that year) and retired in 1986. He took four years to retire after winning his title and his son took four days.

A German world champion in a German car with a German engine, Mercedes can't be too happy that they didn't get to exploit that for very long. Perhaps they'll promote Pascal Wehrlein to fill the void. Then again, Fernando Alonso would be perfect for the job. That would be one for the books if he and Hamilton reunited after their fraught relationship at McLaren. There'll be a lot of people running around like headless chickens on the back of that news.

Nico was quite happy with the one title and a second or third would probably have been tougher to achieve. There are few drivers with the courage to do what he has done, least of all while the glow of such a gigantic achievement is still burning bright. How many could walk away from a salary of £30m (€36m)? Well done to him for having the presence of mind to make such a momentous decision. Happy retirement, Nico Rosberg - at the grand old age of 31.

While the champagne may have been fake in Abu Dhabi the crowned heads of the F1 and GP2 title-winners were very real indeed. The stunning finale that unfolded last weekend was a masterclass in psychological drama, as the two protagonists unleashed a lifetime of rivalry, combat and skill to try to out-fox one another until the death of their opponent's dream.

Hamilton played a tactical game but its execution was flawed and its delivery tardy. Rosberg withstood the waterboarding and emerged a worthy champion.

Mercedes was unhappy with Hamilton's response to team orders in a drama played out over his car's radio. It was reminiscent of that narrative between the US Navy and the Canadian lighthouse where the ship's captain repeatedly orders what he believes is another ship to change direction. After much to-ing and fro-ing the exasperated Canadian says: "No, I say again, YOU divert your course" The Captain: "This is the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, the largest ship in the United States' Atlantic fleet. I demand that you change your course or counter measures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship." The Canadian: "This is a lighthouse. Your call."

Hamilton was that lighthouse last Sunday, and however much pressure was placed on him by his team to up his pace and thus prevent Rosberg from falling into the jaws of Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen he was having none of it. "Let us race - I am losing the world championship so right now I don't really care whether I win or lose this race," was his justifiable retort back to control.

Unless we want racing by numbers, that scenario is the essence of racing and should be allowed to remain so. Since he was in the lead, Hamilton's strategy was to feed his team-mate to the hungry lions and the rest would take care of itself.

It was electrifying as we waited for second-placed Rosberg to crack. But he held it together as the blood-red Ferrari loomed large in his mirrors. Monstering him was a four-time world champion and behind him again was a champion-in-the-making. Four drivers with seven world titles and another on the way locked in an air pocket of 1.685 seconds. It must have been agony for Rosberg. Still, winning the championship under that duress gave it extra kudos. He described it as the toughest of his career. The finish was as tight as Eddie Jordan's Persil-white commentary jeans.

Although Hamilton had congratulated Rosberg on the rostrum, no such largesse was shown in a post-race TV interview where he maintained, or rather confirmed, he was the better driver. Rosberg may not have earned the title before Abu Dhabi but in the twilight of the desert sand he laid to rest the ghost of the underdog. There he found his oasis and was crowned Nico of Arabia.

Hamilton was a winner who lost - and was lost. Maybe being vocally anti-Brexit and anti-Trump sealed his fate. He had won 10 races to Rosberg's nine. He was quicker and sharper than Rosberg but he was slower out of the starting blocks when the season kicked off. Hillary Clinton may have won the popular vote by two million but still she lost the election. Is 2016 the death knell for fairness and democracy?

In a season dominated by Mercedes, who won 19 of the 21 grands prix, for anyone to get a look-in they had to rely on either a Mercedes mechanical failure or team/driver error.

Verstappen was the youngest ever grand prix winner in Spain. He is, of course, the face of the future of F1. Incredible speed, electrifying reactions, he races with the hot-headedness of a karter mixed with the maturity of a champion in the making. He disregards reputations as he carves out his own. The only Dutch driver to have won a grand prix, Verstappen has injected a breath of fresh air into a sport made acrid by over-regulation and officialdom.

In Malaysia, Red Bull was the only other team to score a one-two, when Daniel Ricciardo took the spoils from Verstappen. But once again it was by default and thanks only to a collision and mechanical failure by Rosberg and Hamilton respectively. Toto Wolff, Mercedes principle, said Malaysia is where Hamilton lost the title. Motorsport is full of 'what ifs'.

Herculean driving skills were also displayed at various races by Ricciardo and Alonso. Also of note was Wehrlein in the Manor car, the team owned by Belfast man Stephen Fitzpatrick. Wehrlein earned a valuable point in the constructors' championship in Austria, which meant their transportation costs will be paid for next season. Mercedes may leave their German driver in place for another season to hone his craft, before possibly elevating him to the team in 2018. Then again with the Rosberg retirement bombshell he may have already received a call.

Theodore-Prema had an exceptional double weekend in Macau and Abu Dhabi. In the Macau F3 grand prix our driver Felix Rosenqvist came from sixth on the grid to challenge the leader Felix da Costa. Given a couple more laps it probably would have happened. However, the spoils went to the ex-Status driver. Da Costa and Rosenqvist, who won the race last year, crossed the line with 1.6 seconds separating the two. It was all heart-in-the-mouth stuff, which this iconic race delivers in spades.

In Abu Dhabi the outcome of the GP2 championship decider was the reverse of what happened Hamilton and Rosberg. When you have two drivers who could win the title, where you qualify is vital.

In his debut season in GP2, Italian superstar Antonio Giovinazzi was leading the championship. Red Bull's Formula 1 protege Pierre Gasly, who has had his fair share of ill-fortune on and off the track this season, was the challenger. Some weekends it all comes good. Gasly got pole and won the feature race. Some weekends it all goes wrong. Giovinazzi could only manage fifth.

In the second race Giovinazzi finished sixth and Gasly's ninth was enough to clinch the championship by eight points. The race was won by former Theodore-Prema and Macau winner in 2013, Alex Lynn. Unlike Hamilton and Rosberg, Gasly and Giovinazzi are friends and the atmosphere between them was good at the post-race celebrations. Still, Giovinazzi was crestfallen; losing is painful, however much you try and mask it.

The Italian does simulator work for Ferrari and they may nominate him as their F1 reserve driver for 2017. Gasly is already reserve driver for Red Bull, and he was tipped to replace Daniil Kyvat in Toro Rosso. Every driver in these lower formulae has their sights set on F1. The fact that both these guys already have a foothold is testimony to their talents.

Rosberg and Gasly won their titles in, as some call it, 'the Monaco of the Middle East' - well, without the champagne, gambling or bikinis. It's been a long hard season for the champions but the wait is over and they would surely say it was worth every second.

Meanwhile, coming to a cinema near you is a film about Dundalk driver Tommy Byrne, who many consider was a greater talent than Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher. Crash & Burn it is directed by Seán O'Cualáin (Men at Lunch) and based on the biography 'Crashed & Byrned' by Mark Hughes, which won the William Hill sports book of the year award in 2008.

Sunday Indo Sport

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