Nico Rosberg’s Route to F1

Route to F1

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Bearing the surname of a Formula One world champion gives a racing driver a lot to live up to but it also means doors open more readily on the tricky path through the junior categories for the pinnacle of motor racing.

So it was for Nico Rosberg, who enjoyed the support of his 1982 championship-winning father Keke on his route to Formula One.

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When Nico was born in 1985 his father was in the twilight years of his F1 career, allowing him to spend more time with his German wife in their Monaco home. A young Nico’s school bus passed along part of the Monte-Carlo track where he would eventually emulate his father’s 1983 win.

Rosberg worked hard at his education, learning to speak five languages fluently though, surprisingly, not Finnish. However when he began karting at the age of ten he initially raced under Finnish nationality.

Later in his career he changed his nationality for racing purposes to German for reasons that were purely practical. “Since I am a driver who does not have any big corporate sponsors behind me, it is easier to get into Formula One if you are seen to come from a big country the size of Germany,” he said in 2005.

On more than one occasion in his junior career he crossed paths with his future F1 team mate Lewis Hamilton. One of their first encounters came at the 1999 European Junior ICA event, where Hamilton placed ahead of Rosberg.

For the 2000 season the pair became team mates. It began when Keke Rosberg urged Mercedes to support his son’s move up to the highly competitive Formula A karting championship. The team would be run by Dino Chiesa, who had run Rosberg’s karts for the previous two seasons and had an enviable track record of karting success.

Mercedes boss Norbert Haug and McLaren team principal Ron Dennis decided their other young protege should also be involved. Hamilton duly joined the (Mercedes-Benz McLaren) squad – and beat Rosberg to the Formula A title.

An ambitious step up for the pair to Formula Super A the following year failed to produce results: neither won a race in their first year in the category while series veteran Vitantonio Liuzzi claimed the crown. Here are the trio racing at Mariembourg in Belgium:

In 2002 Rosberg and Hamilton’s paths temporarily diverged – for now. Rosberg embarked on a full season of Formula BMW ADAC and tasted success immediately, winning the first race of the season at the Hockenheimring:

Victory in nine of the twenty races for Team VIVA on circuits such as Zandvoort, the Hockenheimring and Nurburgring saw him take a comfortable title victory by 81 points over Maximillian Gotz.

Rosberg’s success won him his first ever F1 test. And appropriately it came with the very team his father won the world championship with 20 years earlier. On December 3rd Nico he became the youngest driver to participate in an F1 test when he drove the Williams-BMW FW24 at the Circuit de Catalunya.

Formula Three beckoned for 2003 and Rosberg made the move up to the Euroseries in a team run by his father. He was beaten to rookie of the year honours by Christian Klien – who then made a hasty and unsuccessful move into Formula One the following year.

But Rosberg claimed his first F3 win on the Le Mans Bugatti Circuit and finished the season eighth overall with five podium finishes. He remained in the championship for a second season while Hamilton arrived as a rookie.

Rosberg’s season got off to a fine start with two wins in Hockenheim. However his championship bid began to go off the rails in the very next race at Estoril, when he hit stationary rival Eric Salignon at the start:

While ASM and Jamie Green cleaned up, Rosberg’s attempt to claim the runner-up spot hit trouble when he suffered this heavy crash at Zandvoort when his front left brake disc exploded:

Rosberg was unable to take part in the second race at the Dutch track, and despite having taken a third win at the Nurburgring, he ended the season fourth, one place ahead of Hamilton.

Hamilton also trailed Rosberg in the prestigious Masters of Formula Three race, the pair finishing sixth and seventh in the race won by Alexandre Premat.

At the similarly prestigious F3 season finale in Macau Rosberg crashed out while leading on the beginning of the second lap – and was immediately joined by Hamilton who had been following close behind:

While Hamilton remained in the Euroseries for a second season Rosberg took a seat in the new GP2 championship with the ART team.

Arden rival Heikki Kovalainen took the initiative early in the season. The eighth race of the year at Magny-Cours produced his third win of the season but the following day Rosberg took his first victory of the campaign:

This was a turning point for the team and Rosberg added further wins in the Silverstone and Hockenheim feature races. He left Germany six points behind Kovalainen after finishing fourth in the sprint race behind Giorgio Pantano and Scott Speed, and would have been closer had it not been for this spin while trying to pass his rivals:

ART’s rivals grew suspicious of the performance they were gaining from the supposedly identical Dallara chassis. At the Hungaroring Rosberg and team mate Premat were sent to the back of the grid when their steering columns were found not to conform with the rules.

But the infringement was not thought likely to have conferred a significant advantage, and once their cars were made compliant ART remained as competitive as ever. Rosberg really hit his stride at the end of the season, with six podiums and a fifth in the final seven races.

Heading into the final two races Rosberg and Kovalainen were separated by just three point But wins in both races confirmed Rosberg as the first ever champion of GP2.

Rosberg could have made his F1 debut for Williams during 2005, when a substitute was needed after Nick Heidfeld was injured. Antonio Pizzonia got the nod instead.

But when the team came to choose their drivers for 2006 Pizzonia was passed over in favour of Rosberg. On his debut Rosberg finished seventh and became the youngest driver ever to set fastest lap – a record he still holds.

A chip off the old block? Definitely.

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Images © BMW ag, GP2/LAT

37 comments on “Nico Rosberg’s Route to F1”

  1. Great career so far, the only thing missing is F1 WDC. So, 2014 looks like his best chance ever, he will need to work hard to land the title but despite Lewis Hamilton’s intimidating form, it’s still wide open between Mercedes duo.

  2. Unfortunately these days it isn’t as straightforward. You need a lot of sponsorship backing, or be connected to an F1 team (the few that can actually fund driver programs) from a young age. Countless junior series left and right with no clear path out of karting. Even with organisations like Racing Steps supporting drivers, F1 can still be unattainable (of the older RSF proteges, Jack Harvey is headed towards Indycar, James Calado ended up in WEC).

    1. When you look at it, most of the teams now *do* have driver programs, as it’s the only way they can tempt the money from the well heeled rookies as early as possible.

      Caterham & Marussia (via Carlin/Manor) are even well featured and successful at that level

    2. pxcmerc (@)
      20th May 2014, 22:03

      Rosberg has no problems where hes at right now :) The margins at Mercedes are very slim, and right now Lewis is in a great stride. Nico probably thought it would be as easy as last year, but it seems Lewis has raised his game this year, and it will be very difficult for Nico, not because of favoritism, but because hes getting a really good work out.

      Nico didn’t have too many problems with Lewis last year or Schumacher (except for the last season), Nico and Mercedes are pretty close, so it would be foolish to think Lewis has some sort of advantage on that team. In reality Nico probably should be receiving a little more attention because of the flag he carries. Looking at last race, Nico had quite a few opportunities come his way.

      1. Rosberg didn’t have too many problems with Hamilton last year? Apart from being out qualified and out scored? By a guy in his first year at a new team, no less.

        1. If you look at the average finishing position between them in 2013, retirements not included, Rosberg finished on average in 4.8 place while Hamilton finished on average in 5.1. I’d say they were fairly even last year.

  3. No offence Nico because you’re a fairly dashing chap nowadays, but that first pic is pure Augustus Gloop :P

    1. More like Britney, lol.

      1. @osvaldas31

        I’m glad he’s still not like Britney…
        Maldonado probably couldn’t resist to “hit him, baby, one more time”.

  4. WilliamB (@william-brierty)
    20th May 2014, 14:37

    A chip off the old block?

    Yes and no. Yes, he’s fast. Yes, he’s a brilliant racing driver (probably better than Keke ever was). But iis the cerebral, calculated style of Nico anything like that of his hard charging father? No. In may ways Nico is the perfect racing driver for 2014; blisteringly fast, highly intelligent (not many can boast to have turned down an aeronautical engineering course at Imperial College London to pursue what would turn out to be his 2005 GP2 championship victory), diligent and also versatile. I say versatile with regards to Nico’s driving style, with Nico able to cope with reasonably moderate levels of both understeer and oversteer, thus allowing Nico to use theoretically optimal setups for both performance and tyre usage (Nico successfully used a front-limited setup at Silverstone to protect the rear tyres – he was in fact catching Vettel at the time of his retirement).

    And yet, consistency is an issue for Rosberg. He, like Button, is prone to quiet patches, where he simply can’t get the car “in the window”, and, like Webber, is also prone to track specialism. Also, the “armchair psychology” that suggests Hamilton is putting Nico under pressure is certainly supported by the way he initially appeared over-pressured by the title of pre-season favourite in GP2 in 2005, allowing Kovalainen to take the initial plaudits, but equally Rosberg managed to fight back in the second half of the season, and impressed right from the outset in F1 in 2006. Previous examples certainly have a habit of painting contradictory conclusions in Rosberg’s case.

    Nico Rosberg is perhaps F1’s most puzzling driver to read, because at times he is truly championship material whereas at others he is little more than average. In reality only two things are certain: a) that Nico Rosberg has the potential, if harnessed properly, to be champion and b) that his past form suggests little about how 2014, unquestionably the most important year of his career so far, will pan out.

    1. A well worded summation again, @william-brierty I think that your last paragraph could just as easily be attributed to LH.

      1. WilliamB (@william-brierty)
        20th May 2014, 15:21

        …and Kimi Raikkonen @robbie

        1. @william-brierty Hmmm…I guess I can see that although he won’t be vying for the WDC this year so bringing him into this conversation changes it a bit because I’m not sure this is the most important year of his career.

      2. Hamilton can blow hot and cold, but I wouldn’t say that he appears little better than average very often at all. It happened a few times last year, but when he has had bad runs before it has typically been the result of incidents rather than just being average.

        1. I admit it is hard to attribute ‘average’ beside LH’s name, and was waiting for someone to remark about my response to William, but I will say his ‘bad runs before’ last year were not just from incidents, but from incidents of his own doing by making amateurish mistakes, not to mention him admitting in 2011 to off-track distractions costing him on the track, and before that by having lost a few WDC’s that were his to lose. But that said I’m not trying to run him into the ground and the clock only ticks in one direction. LH is now a formidable foe this year and has accumulated valuable experience in his F1 career. I hope NR can keep the pressure on him.

          1. and before that by having lost a few WDC’s that were his to lose

            I don’t know about a few. He certainly made one big error in 2007 which was compounded by his team having him on the wrong strategy, but in 2010 he had done brilliantly to be in contention and then made no more errors than any of his competitors. I reckon even saying a couple is a bit of a stretch.

    2. Good points, and the last bit is why I think he’s roughly a mix of Barrichello and Coulthard, or Button and Webber. DC says that it’s that consistency that wins the title… he could beat Mika on his day, but over a season, invariably it was Mika that would come out on top. Hamilton I would say is in that top category.

      Kimi is 35 now, so his best days are probably behind him, but he can still compete at the top level, given the time to get things to his liking.

      1. If google consistency, you’d probably find a picture of Fernando Alonso.

        1. Alonso and Chilton could be F1’s two most consistent drivers.

  5. Loving all the videos to go along with this write up. Love seeing people obliviously record these guys race and wander around their respected paddocks in the early stages of their career. If only they knew what would come of Rosberg and Hamilton, considering his name a lot of them probably had a good idea what would become of Rosberg ;)

  6. Rosberg was always a number 2 driver. he is in the same league as other nearly there drivers like Ralf Schumacher – Rosberg is nearly good enough, but never quite enough to be a top 3 f1 driver like Alonso, vettel and Hamilton. in karting, Robert Kubica usually beat both Rosberg and Hamilton:
    there is some great Karting videos on youtube if you know Polish and they show Robert Kubica being a step ahead of these 2, he even used to play games on Hamilton driving slow in warm up laps, and adjusting the carby mixture by hand, and Hamilton would stall his kart haha.

    1. I don’t think you can claim what you have with certainty, as this is the first time NR has had a consistently win-capable package in F1, and the clock moves forward not backwards. FA, SV, and LH have all had top 3 cars for at least 4 or more seasons so of course they are top 3 drivers. Even if LH prevails this year NR will finally have one season behind him of having a WDC-capable car, and the experience to go with it. Let’s give him that before we compare him unrealistically to others.

    2. It really is a shame what happened to Kubica… I’m sure Alonso would have loved to have him at Ferrari (although he wouldn’t have a number 2 like Massa then). Kubica could definitely get into that top rung of drivers, like Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel. Once Kimi retires, it’ll be interesting to see if Hulk can establish himself in that category.

      1. Raikkonen, Alonso and Button should retire more or less at the same time. Vandoorne isnt doing all that well, so there will be plenty of seats in the next few years. Honestly, I can see Hulkenberg-Bianchi at Ferrari in the future.

        1. I think Alonso can go on for a bit longer than Button and Raikkonen. You’d expect both to be retired by 2016. Alonso though could have another five years in the tank at least, I reckon.

        2. Kimoni Nakamoto (@)
          21st May 2014, 0:28

          There’s only one car that Hulkenberg’s number 27 really belongs on eh. I wonder if we’ll see Kobayashi in a McLaren-Honda too at some point…

      2. It really is a shame what happened to Massa… I’m sure Alonso would have loved to have him at Ferrari (although he wouldn’t have a number 2 like Kimi then). Massa could definitely get into that top rung of drivers, like Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel. Once Kimi retires, it’ll be interesting to see if Hulk can establish himself in that category.

    3. Karting is often an indication of roughly how good a driver will be when they graduate to cars (if they dominate in karts then they’ll probably be able to adapt and have later success), but I think it’s entirely reasonable to expect the order among the top guys to change post-karting. That we never got to see Kubica in a top team is a great shame, but him beating Hamilton and Rosberg in karts shouldn’t much lower a person’s opinion of them.

  7. Regarding Nico not learning Finnish, I think Keke stated long ago that it would be a pretty much useless language, so he didn’t want his son learning it.

  8. For some reason, although I knew he was Hamilton’s team-mate in 2000, I didn’t realise he had Mercedes backing. And although Hamilton was McLaren’s protégé, he was also somewhat Mercedes’. Obviously when Rosberg linked up with Williams BMW, the Mercedes link waned for a few years. Then I remember him being linked with McLaren when they were Mercedes’ works team (in place of either Alonso or Kovalainen, my memory fails me here), again to be Hamilton’s team-mate!

    The Hamilton-Rosberg-Mercedes combination has been going for a lot longer than many may realise (including me)!

  9. Rosberg looks freakishly feminine in that picture.

  10. Just going to put this out there and see what response it gets – Mercedes have the best driver line-up

    1. That was what most people thought at the start of last year but not this year.

  11. Kimoni Nakamoto (@)
    20th May 2014, 23:40

    Great article, interesting discussion. I’m tempted to draw a distinction between the Lewis Hamilton of previous years: lightning fast, but a bit prone to unforced errors, perhaps trying a bit too hard to make the difference at times when his car hasn’t been quite as fast as he would like, over-ambitious overtaking attempts almost like he thought he had a right to be in front, head not always in the game; and the Hamilton we’ve seen this year: shrugging off his retirement in Australia, then responding by winning the next four races, either dominating or resisting intense pressure from Rosberg, who I’ve always thought was under-rated. The old Hamilton might have been in a similar position now as Barrichello was after the 5th race of 2009, but he just seems to have stepped up a gear this year.

    If we’re comparing them to drivers of past eras, dare I there’s a hint of Senna in Hamilton and a touch of Prost in Rosberg?

    Shades of ’88 or not, we’re set up for an epic season.

  12. I just realized how differently Nico would have been viewed if Lewis had re-signe with McLaren and say Kovalainen or Perez would have gone to Mercedes or Schumacher hadn’t retired….

    He’d be dominating now, much like Button in 2009

  13. The Macau 2004 “crashes” of Rosberg and Hamilton were hilarious.

  14. For a monaco kid his junior career was tough, even though he chose to be german, like Hulkenberg. Being German isn’t as easy as being French or British. Racing with opel F3? That shouldn’t be too easy, similar to the likes of Da Costa who run with vw at Macau. On the other hand Hamilton received tremendous support and he ain’t German. I Think it’s nice that Norbert supported Hamilton, I know that marketing is behind everything but these 2 guys really deserve F1.

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