When looking back at Lewis Hamilton’s iron grip over Formula 1‘s world driver’s championship over the past few years, it is worth remembering that he was once beaten to the title. The man who did so was, of course, Nico Rosberg.
Rosberg, Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate and one-time good friend, was the Brit’s main title rival from 2014-16. And in the first two of those seasons, Hamilton won the title with relative ease.
However, by 2016, the animosity between the two had ramped up considerably. Rosberg was determined to beat Hamilton to the title by any means, even if that meant pushing himself to the absolute limit.
He would end up doing just that, although the title would be decided only in the final race of the season. The season-ending Abu Dhabi GP would play host to the end of a thrilling rivalry in the sport.
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) November 27, 2016
It has now been 5 years since that race took place. Let us therefore look back at how Nico Rosberg won his sole world championship – and also his subsequent retirement.
Hamilton was the defending world champion in 2016, but he was not the favourite to win the title come the end of the season. This is because Rosberg held a 12-point lead over him atop the world driver’s championship standings.
For Hamilton to clinch the title, the math was simple; he needed to win the race and hope Rosberg finished outside of the podium positions. If he finished second, he would need Rosberg to finish 8th or lower. If he finished third, he needed Rosberg to finish outside of the points.
For Rosberg, the equation was simpler: a podium finish would clinch the title, regardless of where Hamilton finished. Given how dominant the Mercedes cars were that year, it was not a tall order for the German at all.
That pace gap to the rest of the field was evident once again in qualifying. Hamilton took pole with Rosberg in second, a little over three hundredths of a second behind his teammate.
Daniel Ricciardo was over half a second behind Rosberg in third, with Kimi Raikkonen in fourth. The prospect of a straight shootout for the title between the Silver Arrows was very much on.
The beginning of the race saw Hamilton get away better and hold on to his lead in the early stages of the race. And both rounds of pitstops which took place would make life even more difficult for Rosberg.
The first round saw Mercedes and Ferrari bring in Hamilton and Raikkonen on Lap 7, with Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel coming in a lap later. Rosberg maintained his position ahead of Raikkonen, but there was one other issue; Red Bull had brought in Ricciardo but not Max Verstappen, who now stood between Rosberg and Hamilton.
Mercedes believed Verstappen would pit soon so advised Rosberg not to attack him for now. However, Red Bull took a conservative approach and kept Verstappen out for a while.
Thus, Raikkonen and Vettel began to catch up to Rosberg. Mercedes urged Rosberg to pass Verstappen, which he would do by Lap 20. But there was more drama to come after the second round of stops.
Firstly, it was Vettel who led after everyone had pitted because Ferrari chose to keep him out longer. Then Hamilton, ahead of Rosberg in second place, began to slow his pace.
He was lapping slower than most of the frontrunners, with his ploy obvious: Rosberg being out of the podium places would hand Hamilton the advantage.
By the time Vettel did pit, the race was in it’s final stages. Hamilton continued his tactic to slow the pace. Vettel would eventually make a dash through the field and come up right behind Rosberg.
Vettel would attack Rosberg in a bid to get second but Rosberg defended well. Hamilton won the race but, with Rosberg in second, it was the German who was crowned world champion.
It was, in many ways, a fitting win for a man who many felt was often overlooked in the team. When Mercedes re-entered Formula 1 as a constructor in 2010, they brought in Nico Rosberg as one of their drivers.
The logic was simple: a German constructor wanted a German driver to front up the team. However, Rosberg’s thunder was stolen when Mercedes managed to lure seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher out of retirement to be Rosberg’s teammate.
Nevertheless, the younger German outscored his far more decorated teammate in each of their three seasons together. But, once Schumacher retired, Mercedes managed to poach Hamilton from McLaren.
Rosberg went from being partnered by arguably the greatest F1 driver ever to a man who many considered his successor; albeit one who had not won a world title for five seasons by that point.
To make things worse, when Mercedes’ era of domination began at the dawn of the turbo-hybrid engine era, it was Hamilton who reaped the benefits. Rosberg fought hard but fell short for two straight seasons.
But 2016 was his year; surely he would now choose to kick on and establish himself as a multi-time world champion, right? Nope, he promptly announced his retirement a week later.
The decision stunned everyone, not least Mercedes who would scramble to find a replacement. That seat eventually went to Valtteri Bottas, who while a capable driver, never managed to push Hamilton the way Rosberg did.
Hamilton would go on to win the next four driver’s championships, drawing level with Schumacher for titles won. He would also overtake Schumacher for most race wins and most pole positions.
Given all that Hamilton has achieved, it puts Rosberg’s accomplishment of beating him in a straight shootout in even greater context.