Looking back: First-time/last-time F1 winner Nico Rosberg

Sudden retirement sours bright season

Nico Rosberg celebrating after the Singapore night race on Sept 18. With his first win at Marina Bay and his eighth of the season, he leapfrogged Lewis Hamilton, who finished third, to take an eight-point lead which he never relinquished.Below: The b
Nico Rosberg celebrating after the Singapore night race on Sept 18. With his first win at Marina Bay and his eighth of the season, he leapfrogged Lewis Hamilton, who finished third, to take an eight-point lead which he never relinquished.ST FILE PHOTO PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Nico Rosberg celebrating after the Singapore night race on Sept 18. With his first win at Marina Bay and his eighth of the season, he leapfrogged Lewis Hamilton, who finished third, to take an eight-point lead which he never relinquished.Below: The b
The by-now retired world champion posing with his trophy at the Adac Sports Gala in Munich on Dec 17. The German automobile club honoured him as the best motor sportsman of the year.ST FILE PHOTO PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Hamilton faster but suffered more engine breakdowns; teen Verstappen a revelation

LONDON • For a Formula One driver who strove with such fierce diligence to win the world championship, Nico Rosberg has given up its fruits very quickly - champion on Sunday in Abu Dhabi, retired less than a week later.

For many years he has been one of the more anonymous of F1's leading drivers. Now, finally thrust into the spotlight of glory, it is almost as if he could not stand the glare.

In truth, Rosberg knows how almost impossibly difficult it was to win F1 title, how repetitive luck as well as formidable skill played their parts.

In all likelihood he would always have remained a one-time title winner. His achievement, though, is monumental.

He not only climbed the mountain but left Lewis Hamilton in his shadow. That is Hamilton, the three-time world champion, faster and more race-crafty and the man who had beaten him almost on a consistent basis for 16 years.

It was the Briton's greatness that defined Rosberg's championship as a worthy one.

By doing so, the German confounded the many people who said he would never be capable of prevailing against his rival over a season, and with 21 races - the longest campaign in F1 history.

NOW'S THE TIME

I have climbed my mountain, I am on the peak, so this feels right.

NICO ROSBERG, Germany's 2016 F1 world champion, on why he quit the sport less than a week after winning the title.

"I have climbed my mountain, I am on the peak, so this feels right," Rosberg said after telling team bosses that he was calling it a day.

In F1, it was the year that had everything and more.

From the retirement of Rosberg to the arrival of a precocious teenage star in Max Verstappen, 2016 will be remembered as a roller-coaster of surprises, accidents, rivalries and farewells.

Defending champion Hamilton drove brilliantly, but not often enough to overcome a sequence of setbacks that cost him glory - and handed his team-mate and rival Rosberg the crown.

The Englishman's 10th win came in last month's season-ender in Abu Dhabi, where he was foiled in a last-gasp attempt to create a trap for Rosberg. No one has won so many races without taking the title.

Rosberg survived and overcame his nerves to finish second in a tense conclusion to a championship that had seen him lead from the front, fall behind and then regain the initiative in the closing months.

He reeled off wins in Australia, Bahrain, China and Russia to leave Hamilton panting in pursuit.

When the F1 circus reached Barcelona, he led by 43 points.

On May 15, the first major pivot in the drama arrived. The two Mercedes men collided into each other on the opening lap, Verstappen blazed to glory, and F1's order was truly shaken up.

Two weeks later, Hamilton had a brilliant race in the Monaco rain, winning for the first time in more than six months.

In the same two races, Rosberg's early-season confidence went from easy to brittle. He led the points chart, but he could sense Hamilton's heat and speed and the chase was on.

It stayed that way with Hamilton eventually taking over the championship lead in July after a phenomenal run of wins.

But his engine failures and other assorted mechanical problems cost him dear with penalties when the action resumed in Belgium where he took as many new parts as possible and conceded victory to Rosberg.

A revived Rosberg took full advantage of Hamilton's wavering concentration and won again in Italy and then in Singapore and Japan.

All this left Hamilton a distant second and it was clear only a miracle could enable him to keep his crown, as Rosberg could afford three seconds and a third in the final four races.

And third was all the German needed in the nerve-shredding duel in the Abu Dhabi desert - the final race of his 10-year F1 career.

Mercedes, the dominant force that carried him to success on the crest of a third successive constructors' championship, were left chasing after a replacement.

In typical F1 fashion, it appeared likely that Williams driver Valtteri Bottas was being lined up as Rosberg's replacement in the most coveted seat in the pit lane for the faster "new-look" cars of 2017.

The placid Finn may prove to be a perfect choice, not least because of his temperament. He has plenty of speed, too, but is unlikely to match Rosberg's run of wins.

F1 will go into the new year braced for change on and off the track, even if Hamilton will again start as top dog at Mercedes and firm favourite to take his fourth world championship.

After winning 19 of a record 21 races in the season, starting all but one on pole and retaining both titles for the third year in a row, there is just a slim chance that Mercedes will be less dominant.

But while Rosberg made the biggest breakthrough of 2016, Red Bull's Verstappen, fourth in the final standings, provided another masterclass despite being the sport's youngest race winner at 18.

The "Verstappen show", as Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff dubbed the driver's sensational drive in a wet Brazil race, came of age after his move from Toro Rosso to Red Bull in May.

The teenager won on his debut in Spain for the senior team, but it was his surge from 16th to third in Interlagos with a series of daring overtakes in the final laps that was arguably the most stunning performance of the season.

Next year, with new rules bringing wider tyres and faster cars with more aggressive handling, promises even more excitement.

And as Rosberg and Verstappen had shown this year, Hamilton may not be that dominant after all.

More significant change has also already started off the track with Liberty Media, led by US cable mogul John Malone, taking control of the sport in a deal valued at US$8 billion (S$11.6 billion).

The deal is due to be completed by the first quarter of next year and Liberty are talking already about a new era in the longer term, including measures to give more back to the fans while limiting the amounts teams spend.

That could also make for some lively headlines as F1's 86-year-old commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone, who has no intention of moving aside, and new chairman Chase Carey figure out a way forward.

THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2016, with the headline 'Sudden retirement sours bright season'. Print Edition | Subscribe