Tip of the Rosberg: What happened to the only Hamilton alternative F1 has ever seen?


F1 fans crave drama. In an era where Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton winning is as probable as the sun rising, drama and competition is what everyone wants. With all due respect to Max Verstappen, he isn’t on the level to pose a monumental threat to Hamilton. Yet.

But Hamilton has faced a challenge before. This challenge not only pushed him to the limit, but also defeated him. Ironically, the challenge, accompanied by drama and competition, is what Mercedes offered in spades during the beginning of the hybrid era. Ironically, said challenge, drama and competition was from within their own ranks.

How the three-pointed-star royally messed up a hitherto unbelievable combination of drivers over three seasons is anyone’s guess. They had two equals in their line-up, yet they were a gold mine for content when these drivers rolled together.

But who was this equal to Hamilton, you ask? Who could have matched Sir Lewis, widely considered as the greatest driver ever?

Enter Nico Rosberg. Karting teammates and close friends with Hamilton during their youth, the pair’s camaraderie was well-documented. They were reunited at Mercedes years later. During their time together, the German was the yang to Hamilton’s yin. Except the tiny fact that while yin and yang coexist perfectly, the two drivers had the chemistry of water and oil.

In the time he spent at Mercedes, jaws were dropped at Rosberg’s ability. Here was someone who was finally the option B to Hamilton. At this time, Hamilton had only won one WDC, so he was only ‘the next big thing’.

Nevertheless, fans were excited at the prospect of someone like Rosberg. Pundits called Rosberg the most promising of stars in what they were already calling ‘The Lewis Generation’. The two drivers had widely different, but equally effective driving styles. Hamilton relied on his sheer pace and intuition, while Rosberg was more analytical and intelligent.

More crucially, Rosberg had the will to win. As he would demonstrate over the years, he would go to any lengths to be numero uno. So naturally, you can see where this is going. Mercedes had all the ingredients for a winning dynasty, and while they have accomplished it since, they had to get past a whirlwind of drama and ego trips between their drivers to get there.

The cracks between Rosberg and Hamilton first appeared during the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix. In a wheel-to-wheel duel for the win, fans were on the edge of their seats as Hamilton clinched victory in a very close race. Mercedes was praised for allowing the two drivers to let speed do the talking.

But later, it was discovered that Rosberg allowed more than speed to talk. He had gotten that close in the race because he used engine modes that Mercedes had banned to gain a power advantage over his teammate. Hamilton took exception to Rosberg’s antics, but delivered a response to him two races later in Spain.

There, the pair were once again engaged in an epic battle, and Hamilton won by 0.6 seconds. The aftermath was the biggest ‘ooohhh’ moment in F1 history. Where were you when Rosberg learned Hamilton beat him using the same banned engine modes?

From then on, the two drivers were at war, and fans ate everything up. At Monaco in 2014, Rosberg did something that is still debated to this day.

The German’s Q3 attempt had already given him provisional pole, but then he crashed quite bizarrely, prompting yellow flags. The incident saw Hamilton having to abandon a lap he thought was good enough for pole, sabotaging his qualifier.

Many, Hamilton included, thought Rosberg crashed on purpose to ruin his teammate’s race.

Rosberg went on to capitalize on his pole and win the next day, grabbing the WDC lead. Even though Rosberg was cleared of any suspicion, Hamilton responded by saying their friendship was over. Unfortunately, it was only the beginning.

It’s here that we see a trait of Rosberg. While many have accused him of being a cheat, he has as many supporters saying he was a serial winner. His willingness to do anything for victory was on a scale that had never been seen before.

So when Hamilton responded by disobeying team orders and kept Rosberg pinned behind him at Hungary, he was fuming. Four weeks later, Rosberg did the unthinkable and orchestrated a different crash, colliding with Hamilton and ending his race. He went on to finish second and didn’t even flinch when he said he wanted to “prove a point.”

Rosberg was subsequently booed on the podium and punished by Mercedes. Hamilton, meanwhile, used his momentum and won six of the next seven races to clinch his second WDC. Despite their animosity, Rosberg congratulated his rival on his title.

And therein lies another trait of Rosberg. His competitive spirit is fiery, and he is not one to let grudges go. Twice he accused Hamilton of ruining his race – once in China and once in the US.

Both times, Hamilton won with little effort. The rest of the season followed a similar theme, with the Brit winning his third WDC and second in a row.

But if Hamilton thought Rosberg lost his competitiveness from 2014, he was about to have a rude awakening. There’s another trait of Rosberg. For all his dark arts, Rosberg was never one to give up.

He wouldn’t let his toothless 2015 season define him, and used it as fuel for the next one. After his defeat in America, he embarked on a seven-race winning streak, including the first four races of the new season. And then came Spain again.

Rosberg, at this stage, led his teammate by 43 points. During the first lap itself, Rosberg overtook Hamilton at pole. In the next few corners, Rosberg’s car entered a wrong engine mode due to an error from his side.

This slowed him down, allowing Hamilton to close in. Rosberg tried to fend him off, but both drivers lost control and crashed. Stewards deemed it an accident, and cleared Hamilton of any wrongdoing because he had been much faster at the corner than Rosberg.

This nightmare first lap repeated itself during the Austrian GP’s last lap. Rosberg had the race won despite a brake issue. But a mistake from him allowed Hamilton to close in. Once again, Rosberg collided with his teammate, but this time, Hamilton shrugged the crash off to finish first.

Nico, meanwhile, slipped to fourth due to the crash damaging his wing.

Both drivers blamed each other, and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was furious. Stewards deduced Rosberg was at fault for not giving racing room to Hamilton and slapped him with two penalty points.

But fans had seen Rosberg’s last stand, and another trait of his. Holding on with his speed instead of giving his teammate space showed his no-nonsense attitude. For two years, he had been second-best to Hamilton.

This time, he wasn’t having it.

And that is exactly what happened. In the final race of the season, Rosberg held a twelve-point advantage over Hamilton, which meant any of them could walk away with the WDC.

Shockingly, Hamilton did ‘a Rosberg’ and deliberately slowed down to keep Rosberg pinned at the back. This move was an invitation to two other drivers to overtake Rosberg, effectively landing Hamilton the WDC.

Quite amusingly, Rosberg finished second and won his maiden WDC. Five days later, he stunned the world and announced his immediate retirement from F1.

What to make of Nico Rosberg, then? Never in F1 history have we seen someone like him. Even today, fans are split on the German. While many accuse of him of being the dirtiest player in the game, others hail him as a generational talent who displayed grit and an innate desire to win at all costs.

The only thing fans unanimously complain about was how he took his ball and went home. While Rosberg cited personal reasons for his retirement, you can’t help but wonder what might have been had he stayed in the sport. Also, a champion is judged not when he wins the title, but when he defends it. Sadly for us, we never got to see this version of the driver.

In 2018. Rosberg admitted on his YouTube channel that he hoped to revive his friendship with Hamilton one day. Despite their fierce rivalry, he has praised Hamilton for what he would accomplish later on, and has called him one of F1’s all-time greats.

There’s another trait of Rosberg – like many in sporting history, he takes no prisoners in the sport, but is a nice guy out of it.

For three seasons, Nico Rosberg provided fans with another layer of excitement. Perhaps that will be his legacy – he came, he saw (Hamilton), and he conquered. He remains the only one to have beaten Hamilton in his era of F1 dominance.

How he did it will perhaps put an asterisk for many, but as fans, we can celebrate what he gave to the sport.

Drama and competition no doubt, but also a plan B to the monotony many fans were frustrated with. That, perhaps, is what we will ultimately remember him for.

Here’s hoping Verstappen will one day be the Rosberg to Hamilton’s Hamilton (sigh). Minus the controversy of course. Or maybe not. After all, what’s F1 without some spicy drama?

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