Formula One: World title validates Nico Rosberg's tougher mental stance

Newly-minted Formula One world champion Nico Rosberg of Mercedes celebrating his first drivers' title with his wife Vivian Sibold after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday. Many believe that the German will be even better next season after breaking hi
Newly-minted Formula One world champion Nico Rosberg of Mercedes celebrating his first drivers' title with his wife Vivian Sibold after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday. Many believe that the German will be even better next season after breaking his world championship duck.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ABU DHABI • When it came to the crunch, the boy they nicknamed Britney had enough steel to overcome nerves that shredded by the second. And Nico Rosberg will only get better next season now that he has finally won a Formula One title, according to his father, former world champion Keke.

"I don't know if the dynamic changes, but a happy man performs better than an unhappy man," the Finn said after the blond bombshell tagged with the pop star's name because of his good looks clinched the championship in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.

"He is going to raise the game a little bit next year like everybody does when they win the championship. Jenson (Button) did it. I did it. And that probably will happen. It goes with the game."

Rosberg Sr, who won just one race with Williams in his 1982 championship-winning year, took the rest of his five victories in later seasons even if he never again challenged for the title.

Button, the 2009 champion with Brawn, went on to take eight of his 15 career victories with McLaren and beat Rosberg's team-mate and three-time champion Lewis Hamilton in the standings in 2011.

While Keke was keen for his son to make history, Rosberg Sr studiously stayed out of his son's career, attending only a single race this year. Nico noted: "Every Saturday night I get a message from him and most of the time it is, 'Pedal to the metal!' It has been good how he has let me get on with it. It was his way of stepping back a bit."

Jackie Stewart, the three-time champion who won his titles in 1969, 1971 and 1973, also noted that Rosberg had got the monkey off his back, saying: "He'll relax a little bit. When you haven't won the championship at all, you're pretty uptight sometimes... emotions have an enormous amount to do with it."

Rosberg has kept them under control this year, refusing to talk about the title before it was won and being coy about his mindset.

"Maybe I wasn't completely transparent the whole weekend. Of course I need to protect myself a little bit also from your world which is pretty intense, the media world," he told reporters. "It was a very, very tough weekend for me."

Indeed. But he stayed focused on Sunday, just as he had all year, relentlessly determined not to be shoved aside in a triumph of grit and dedication over Hamilton's extravagant skills.

While his victory came this year, its seeds were sown last year in Texas, where Hamilton barged him aside to claim a third world title, a second in Mercedes colours.

"That was a big turning point," Rosberg said. "It was a horrible experience. I spent two days alone thinking and I didn't want to experience that again. I went and won the next seven races on the trot. That helped bring me to today."

Rosberg reappraised the way that he raced. If he could not be faster, then he could be smarter. The driver who almost enrolled at Imperial College London to study aerodynamics and engineering had learnt at the knee of the master when he was partnered with Michael Schumacher, the seven-time world champion, when Mercedes started their team in 2010.

He learnt how to be "the other bloke", as he says, when 300 camera crews turned up at the launch all wanting to talk to Schumacher. No one wanted to interview him. He survived the mind games when Schumacher once boxed in his car so he could not leave the track. But he watched Schumacher work and marvelled when the great champion announced his retirement but then spent two hours in an engineering debrief.

Schumacher had no concept of being beaten and Rosberg adopted that same focus, concentrating hard on each race as it came, shutting out the noise from Hamilton - who tried to destabilise him - and paying attention to the tiniest details.

Rosberg hit on the idea of having the fingers of his driving gloves re-stitched so that he would have more feel. Hamilton soon followed suit. While the Briton roamed the red carpets of the world, Rosberg practised his starts on the team simulator to iron out the glitches hampering Mercedes.

For years, his best was not good enough, but on Sunday, under the brilliant light of 5,000 high-powered bulbs, Rosberg finally emerged from his team-mate's shadow as the new Formula One world champion.

REUTERS, THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2016, with the headline 'World title validates tougher mental stance'. Print Edition | Subscribe