With Lewis Hamilton purposefully slowing him down, two other drivers hard on his tail and the title on the line, Nico Rosberg held his nerve to win the Formula 1 championship for the first time yesterday.
The German finished second at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix behind defending champion Hamilton, who won the race from pole position for his 53rd GP win. But Rosberg was 12 points ahead of his Mercedes team-mate coming into the title showdown and only needed to finish no lower than third if Hamilton won.
In the end, it felt like the most difficult second place of his career. “It was so intense, the race, so tough,” said Rosberg, who finished runner-up to Hamilton in the previous two years.
Rosberg repeatedly wiped his face and lowered his head several times in the post-race news conference, appearing emotionally exhausted as he tilted back into his chair and rubbed his eyes. Still, he expects to find plenty of energy to celebrate his win.
“Tonight’s going to be absolutely nuts,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to be available for a few days.”
The 31-year-old finally emulated his father Keke Rosberg, pictured, who won the F1 title in 1982. “Two Rosbergs are world champions... if I’ve got my statistics right,” Rosberg said jokingly, before recounting how his father has adopted a keen but discreet profile. “Every Saturday night I get a text from him: ‘Pedal to the metal’. That’s it. It’s good that he’s let me get on with it.”
Hamilton blatantly disobeyed team orders to speed up near the end, thus backing Rosberg toward Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen in third and fourth places, respectively. “If I had dropped behind those guys it was over,” Rosberg said.
Vettel could not quite pass Rosberg, finishing third ahead of Verstappen and fourth overall in the championship behind Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo.
Hamilton, meanwhile, misses out on a third straight title and fourth overall, despite ending the year with ten wins – one more than Rosberg.
“Nico drove well not to make a mistake,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton slowed in the later stages of the race to increase the chances of Rosberg being overtaken by other drivers. If Rosberg had been passed by Vettel and Verstappen and had finished fourth, Hamilton would have held on to his title. When his team told him over race radio to up the tempo, Hamilton replied bluntly: “I suggest you guys let us race.”
Even a direct order from Mercedes’ executive director Paddy Lowe four laps from the end did not work. Rosberg did not criticise Hamilton’s tactics, saying he understood that it was the British driver’s best chance. Hamilton was emphatically unapologetic. “I don’t know why they just didn’t let us race,” he said. “It’s a bit of a shame.”
Vettel was a wheel’s length away from him on the final lap, but Rosberg kept his cool and his elation was evident as he let out a delighted screech of “Yes! World champion” when he crossed the line.
While there was joy for Rosberg, Jenson Button’s F1 farewell ended in sad style when he retired early from the race with a suspension problem.
“My race was short, but I loved everything else. I was really emotional before I got in the car,” Button said. “It was such a special atmosphere to have the whole team and all my friends and family cheering me on my way into the garage. I’m just glad I was wearing my sunglasses.”
Button, a hugely popular figure among fans and other drivers alike, stepped out and waved to the crowd one last time before being comforted by mechanics and his mother.
“I’m very content with all I’ve achieved in my career,” Button said. “Now, it’s done.”