Features - Interview
SEPTEMBER 20, 2005
The secrets of Nico Rosberg
BY JOE SAWARD
In the summer of 1985 Keke Rosberg, the original F1 Flying Finn, wound up his turbo-charged Williams-Honda and went for the fastest lap ever around Silverstone, aiming to break the average speed of 160mph. It was a record that would stand for 17 years. But to Keke it meant nothing. It was just part of the job. The biggest thing for him that summer was the birth of a small bundle of humanity called Nico, his son and heir. Twenty years later Nico is rumoured to be on the verge of Formula 1 and indeed some are even speculating that the younger Rosberg will race for Williams in 2006.
The original Rosberg was brash and cocky (he still is). He was a character who had fought through the ups and downs of the sport to finally make the big time. In 1982 he became World Champion with only one Grand Prix win to his name. When he retired from F1 he had competed in 114 Grands Prix and had won only five. But those who remember Rosberg in action do not worry about statistics. Keke was a phenomenon.
Nico seems very different. He is shy and retiring - or at least that is the impression you get - and he is quiet, not at all like his old man. Growing up in the shadow of a famous father is not always an easy thing but Nico seems to be rather less troubled about it than some of the other F1 drivers who have done the same thing.
"Generally it is just annoying," he says. "I know that I am very lucky to have a father like that and it has helped my career but in the end you are the one who is racing and the results are your's."
Nico was too young to remember his father in F1 - Keke retired at the end of 1986 when Nico was 18 months old - but in the mid-1990s Keke was racing in the DTM and Nico often went to races.
"It was just fantastic," he says. "I don't really remember deciding that I wanted to be a racing driver. Probably it was always there in the back of my head. It seems like I always wanted to race. I think it is the greatest thing to be a racing driver, an entertainer if you like."
Rosberg's career was anything but planned. At six he tried out karting at a public track and liked it. At 10 Keke bought him a kart.
"It happened unconsciously really," says Nico. "I had a kart and then there was a chance to go racing which came along and when the results came then my interest really started to grow a lot."
Early on, Rosberg Jr became a tennis player.
"At the age of nine I was playing tennis and I was really good," he explains. "I am generally good in ballgames and I was quite into the tennis thing. I was in the Monaco team but eventually I decided that I wanted to go racing more. Tennis would not have worked out anyway because of school. As long as school was going fine I could do other things, but school was the priority and I did pretty well. I actually wanted to go off and study aerodynamics. That was the next phase after school but that was the first year that I tried single-seaters and I decided that I would stick with racing and see how things worked out, rather than going to university. That was strange because suddenly all my friends in Monaco went off to universities and I was at home and doing my thing by myself. It was a big change because I had always been with them."
Rosberg's upbringing in Monaco was a privileged one but it left him in a rather unusual situation as a non-Finnish-speaking Finn. He was born in Germany to a German mother and grew up in Monaco and Ibiza.
"We speak German at home," he says (in very good English). "We watch TV in German and I feel more German that I feel Finnish because I never lived in Finland and I don't speak the language. I don't think of myself as being Finnish but I don't really think of myself as being a German either. It is not like the Brazilians, who have this big patriotic thing. I don't have that and I guess in a way it's unfortunate."
His racing career has not all been plain sailing. Although he won straight away in Formula BMW in 2002, collecting nine victories in 20 races and testing an F1 car at the end of his first season in cars - which, incidentally, made him, at 17, the youngest man ever to drive a Formula 1 car, his career in Formula 3 in 2003 and 2004 was less impressive.
"Winning in my first year was totally unexpected," he says. "Even for me, because there were some guys in the BMW series who I thought would beat me. In Formula 3 it was similar to karts where the machinery plays a big role. At the time the ASM team had three cars that were head and shoulders above everyone else so I was driving my nuts off and still could not really get close. When you have to fight like that you can lose confidence, particularly when mistakes happen. I made a lot of mistakes but I learned a lot."
At the end of 2003 Williams took an even closer look at him than they had 12 months earlier, running him and Nelson Piquet Jr in a test in Spain. At the time the team picked Antonio Pizzonia to be its test driver but the Williams connection was there.
"One evening at the beginning of this year the phone rang," Nico says. "It was Sam Michael (the Williams's technical director) and he asked me if I would like to be a test driver for the team. I said something like: 'Let me give it some thought and I'll get back to you' but I didn't give it much thought! That was one of the nicest moments because they came to me and asked. I was not chasing after them."
This year Rosberg has impressed in GP2 and even those who did not really rate him after his F3 adventures have had to reassess their evaluation.
"I have a very good team that is for sure," he says. "I have a good car but I would not say it was better than Scott Speed's car or Heikki Kovalainen's. In GP2 you can change roll-bars, springs, cambers and tyre pressures. Full stop. You cannot do much. Compared to last year in F3, where one could change a lot, things are much closer. No one team has a big advantage. That has helped a lot."
And the F1 testing?
"I have really enjoyed the technical side of it, but because I am young I am a bit afraid to get too involved. I am worried that they will say: 'What does he know? He's too young', so I have been holding myself back a little bit on that side of things. I get on very well with Sam and I think I will be able to do more when I really get a chance to get my head into it."
And when will that be?
"I don't know," says Nico. "But even if I did I probably wouldn't be able to say. You know how it is. It is really great that talks are going on about me because F1 is the top of the game."
Nico is still managed by his father - although there is no contract between them - and Keke is careful to stay in the background and let his son take the limelight but there is no doubt that talks are going on. Nico might be seen in the second Williams for the final two races this year. He might even race alongside Mark Webber next year.
For the moment nothing is decided except that Rosberg is the leading light of his generation. In his karting days he raced against Lewis Hamilton and Robert Kubica, both highly-rated young drivers.
"At the moment I guess that I am the one at the highest level," says Nico, "but they are very good drivers. I don't know who is the best. I am not going to say that I am. Time will show who is best when we come against each other again at some time in the future."
Presumably, he means in Formula 1.