Wednesday 25 April 2018

Rosberg's retirement at his 'peak' stuns rivals

An emotional Nico Rosberg addressing the media during a press conference in Vienna where the Formula One world champion announced his retirement yesterday Photo: REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
An emotional Nico Rosberg addressing the media during a press conference in Vienna where the Formula One world champion announced his retirement yesterday Photo: REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Oliver Brown

In one of the most astonishing announcements in the annals of sport, Nico Rosberg said yesterday that he was retiring from Formula One at the age of 31, just five days after winning his first world title.

The Mercedes driver explained that he had "climbed a mountain" that left him "1,000 per cent sure" that he should take his bow at the pinnacle of his profession.

It was a stunning revelation, when the tense battles waged with Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes this season had looked poised to continue for years to come.

But Rosberg resolved that he had sacrificed enough, arguing that he was stepping away from the sport for the benefit of his wife, Vivian, and their baby daughter, Alaia.

"I'm looking forward to being a husband and a dad for a while," he said.

Some of sport's most outstanding stars, from Bjorn Borg to Michael Jordan, Eric Cantona to Graeme Swann, have chosen to retire with dramatic suddenness, but few have ever done so within days of their greatest glory.

In retrospect, perhaps more credence should have been attached to a remark made by his father, the 1982 world champion Keke Rosberg, in the paddock after last weekend's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

"Maybe he retires tomorrow," said Rosberg Snr, before hastily adding: "There's quite a lot of mileage left in him yet."

It was dismissed as an off-hand comment by a proud parent who by then had enjoyed several celebratory drinks, but it provided an insight into the complexities of his son's thinking. Rosberg kept the news a secret between him, Vivian and his agent Georg Nolte, before informing Toto Wolff, Mercedes' head of motorsport, that his mind was set.

Before receiving the prize he had coveted for so long at an FIA ceremony in Vienna last night, he said: "For 25 years in racing, it has been my dream, my 'one thing' to become Formula One world champion. Through the hard work, the pain, this has been my target. And now I have made it. I am on the peak, so this feels right."

His team-mate Hamilton, who lost out on the title by a mere five points despite finishing the season with four consecutive victories, was not about to second-guess his logic.

But he did offer the type of backhanded compliment yesterday that illustrated why Rosberg would not be too unhappy to walk away from this grinding psychological rivalry.


"This is the first time he has won in 18 years of racing together," Hamilton said.

"He has a family he wants to focus on, and F1 takes so much from you. It is definitely going to be strange. It will be sad not to have him in the team next year."

The dynamic for Hamilton will be starkly different in 2017, now that his nearest contender for the championship has removed himself from the equation.

Pascal Wehrlein, the 22-year-old German who has benefited from the Mercedes young drivers' programme, is the favourite to take Rosberg's seat, having raced for Manor all year.

There are significant temptations for Fernando Alonso to walk away from an uncompetitive McLaren to the reigning triple constructors' champions, but the Spaniard has another season of his £25 million-a-year contract to run.

Plus, Hamilton will want assurances that his alpha-male standing at Mercedes is not under threat. "I've never needed a team-mate to be able to push me," he said, with some defiance.

"The better the driver, the better it is for me when I finish ahead of them."

There was a touching tribute yesterday from Wolff for Rosberg, who has more than lived up to his father's reputation with 23 wins and 30 pole positions from his 206 grands prix.

"This is a brave decision by Nico and testament to the strength of his character. The clarity of his judgment meant that I accepted it right away when he told me.

"It's impossible to capture the essence of a person in a few short words, but Nico has a special combination of natural talent and fighting spirit that have brought him to where he is today.

"Throughout his career, people have thought he was on a golden path to success just because his father was a champion. In some ways, that made the challenge greater, and meant that he had to fight even harder."

Rosberg had appeared, in the aftermath of a stressful denouement in Abu Dhabi where Hamilton had tried to back him into the chasing pack, as if all his energies were sapped.

He talked time and again of how the race had been an unpleasant experience, and how he had found the incessant media scrutiny of his title chances almost overwhelming.

Already, the notion that he could just give it up for a quieter life was crystallising in his thoughts.

Only yesterday, though, did he let slip what many had deemed unthinkable. The ramifications of his move will be felt for some time, not least by his perpetual adversary Hamilton.

For it is rare in any sport that curtain calls are taken with such bold and utterly unexpected finality.

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