if at first you don't succeed

Nico Rosberg's Triumph of Mind Over Matter

After more than 200 grands prix, Nico Rosberg is finally Formula 1 world champion. It was a heard-earned triumph that owes as much to Rosberg's mental fortitude and resilience as to his abilities behind the wheel.

by Jim Weeks
Nov 28 2016, 3:19pm

The final race of the 2004 Formula 3 Euro Series season used to mark a small milestone for Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Still teenagers at the time, the only two future Formula 1 world champions in the 25-car field did not finish on the podium at Hockenheim that day. In fact, both ended the season outside the top-three of the championship. Lewis took the chequered flag in sixth, Nico in eighth. Still, this meant that Nico – driving for his father Keke's team – finished fourth in the standings, one spot ahead of Lewis.

The significance? Until Sunday, when after more than 200 grands prix he finally became F1 world champion, this was the last time Rosberg beat Hamilton over the course of a year.

Admittedly, that comparison is not entirely fair. For one thing, they drove in different series for two years. Nico was GP2 champion in 2005 while Lewis remained in F3 and won the title; in 2006 the Brit took Rosberg's GP2 seat and repeated his championship win, while Nico stepped up to F1 and showed well for Williams.

Lewis joined him in F1 in 2007. And yes, in the following nine seasons the British driver emerged on top every time. But it was not a truly fair fight until 2013, when Lewis joined Nico at Mercedes, giving us a proper comparison of their relative abilities. In that period, Hamilton has been on top.

You could argue that this has remained the case in 2016. Lewis certainly would. He will never see what has unfolded this year as a legitimate defeat; it will be the title that he lost to misfortune, not his own deficiencies. Before the chequered flag fell in Abu Dhabi, he was already making this case.

Hamilton has delivered some brilliant drives this year, but he has not been perfect // PA Images

"I feel like I have been my strongest this year," Hamilton told BBC Sport after his mesmeric drive to victory at the rain-soaked Brazilian Grand Prix. "There were a couple of things that really got in the way.

"Nico has finished every race this year apart from Barcelona [where the two collided and crashed out], has qualified every qualifying session and three I was not even able to take part in."

That is just one example of a line he's repeated several times, and it's true. Lewis' car has suffered from a few technical gremlins this year while Nico's has been faultless. It's been enough to stoke wild theories about Mercedes sabotaging Hamilton's machinery because they wanted two world champions in their team. Bullshit to be sure, but enough to fuel some extensive, if not wholly informed, social media debates.

The most significant mechanical failure occurred in Malaysia. Hamilton was comfortably leading at Sepang when his engine suddenly expired, costing him 25 points that would have put him in the lead of the world championship. Were it not for that, Lewis would presumably be champion. Nico can't avoid that fact.

Nevertheless, this argument ignores the very crucial days on which Rosberg beat Hamilton in a fair fight this year, inconvenient to Lewis' self-preservation as these may be. We'll come back to them later.

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How good is Nico Rosberg? He's bloody good, right? Really bloody good. Quick over a single lap and a race distance, intelligent, technically minded, hard working, decent in wheel-to-wheel combat, sensible in the wet. A good bloke, too, from what you can tell. He deserves to be an F1 driver, deserves a race-winning car.

Of course, 'really bloody good' comes up just a little short against someone like Hamilton, who possesses something greater than talent – a level of innate ability to drive a grand prix car that only a few dozen competitors in the sport's history can lay claim to. There are always phenomenal drivers in F1 and, if you come up against one as a teammate, you're on a hiding to nothing.

It's not that they're entirely unbeatable. But, over the course of a season, the phenomenal driver will tend to have the edge over the really bloody good one. So it was in 2013 and, far more importantly, 2014 and 2015. Over a nine-month season Lewis was simply better, and duly won two world titles while Nico was forced to settle for second best.

But here's where Nico earned his 2016 triumph. In this situation, many drivers would have given up some time ago. Perhaps 'given up' is the wrong phrase – they would not have knowingly quit, but rather sunk under the pressure, to the point that they were subconsciously beaten before even turning a wheel. But not Nico. Somehow, he was as motivated and confident this year as in early 2014. He'd been beaten to the title twice, and has often looked second best, yet here he is, champion of the world.

Rosberg celebrates his first world title // EPA

I can't stress how impressive that is. Rosberg is routinely reminded that he's not as good as Hamilton, be it by the media, the timing screens, or the world championship table. Given the importance of confidence in F1, of believing you are the best, it is incredible that he was not worn down. The list of very good drivers who have faced a legit superstar and come up short is extensive. Often they start out strong, but the unrelenting force of their teammate's ability grinds them down until they're playing the number two role by default.

Rosberg has somehow retained his confidence and determination in the face of being beaten for three straight seasons. I genuinely expected him to be finished by this point, mentally deconstructed to the extent that beating Lewis would become almost impossible. It speaks volumes to Nico's mental fortitude that this did not happen. His world title was a triumph of mind over matter.

The point at which he looked truly beaten was late in 2015, when he slithered off the road at the U.S. Grand Prix to hand Hamilton the race win and the world title with three rounds to spare. Frankly, it was embarrassing for a driver who had desires on the sport's biggest prize. It was confirmation of Lewis' considerable superiority.

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His reaction summed up why Rosberg is a worthy champion: he went on to win the next three races, making no difference to his position in the standings but rehabilitating him in time for the winter break. He then opened 2016 with four straight wins, the perfect platform to build his title assault.

Of course, Lewis has some considerable challenges in terms of reliability; and he recovered brilliantly in mid-season, winning six out of seven races. At a wet Monaco Grand Prix, the gulf between the two Mercedes drivers was vast: Nico was simply blown away by his teammate, who seemed like he was driving an entirely different car.

Hamilton will look at this run of wins, at his technical failures, and at his ability to destroy Rosberg around the streets of Monte Carlo, as proof that he deserved this world title more.

But Hamilton cannot escape the fact that Nico delivered a number of world champion's drives this term. In particular, Singapore and Suzuka were both masterful and crucial. These circuits represent huge challenges for the driver – particularly Singapore – and Rosberg deservedly won both. More importantly, Hamilton could only manage third in each, giving away six world championship points. That Rosberg's eventual margin of victory was five tells you how significant this was.

Rosberg's brilliant win in Singapore, combined with Hamilton's muted P3, was crucial to the title battle // PA Images

It was on days like this that Nico cemented his world title credentials. Okay, he needed some mechanical failures on Lewis' car to help set the scene, but he was nevertheless able to deliver when it mattered. His motivation and confidence were there, despite the hard knocks. He understands that when first isn't achievable you should take second, and be glad of the points. Rosberg gets a lot of stick for this, but it's not dissimilar to the attitude adopted by drivers like Alain Prost and Niki Lauda. Which is to say, F1 legends.

Yet Rosberg is not hugely popular among F1 fans, though he seems like a fundamentally good bloke. He is intelligent, speaks five languages fluently, stays calms and polite in the face of adversity. But with all this, he's somewhat remote and unknowable. A difficult character to comprehend, one whose true motivation is somehow unclear.

Lewis, on the other hand, is expressive and emotional in a way that – though sometimes a little extreme – feels very genuine. At times it can become annoying, but it's that humanity that people either warm to or rail against. Some people love him, others hate him, but he certainly provokes a reaction. Nico is neither one nor the other, neither irritating nor engaging. That is not a criticism, but perhaps it explains the lukewarm feelings fans have for him. If he cried and whooped and beat his hand against his chest, perhaps he'd be seen differently. Not that he should care.

Ultimately, neither driver deserved the world title more than the other this year, but nor did either man deserve it less. Nico Rosberg is a world champion, and a deserving one. For his mental strength alone, he has earned that honour.

@Jim_Weeks