Craig Murto: Rosberg celebrates world title

Second-generation Formula One racer Nico Rosberg is now the 33rd driver to be crowned World Driving Champion.

The 31 year old held on to win the championship in the season finale at Abu Dhabi, even as his Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton did all he could to secure a fourth title.

The final 10 laps of the race were true nail-biters. Hamilton had to win the race, and Rosberg had to finish outside the top three for Hamilton to win the championship. As upstart Max Verstappen in his Red Bull and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel closed on the front-running Mercedes, Hamilton slowed the pace of the race in hopes Rosberg would get passed and pushed off the podium.

The Mercedes engineers worried that if Vettel and Verstappen passed Rosberg, due to their tire strategies they would be able to get past Hamilton and Hamilton would lose the race. When they radioed to Hamilton to pick up the pace in order to win the race, Hamilton responded that he was leading and very “comfortable” with his strategy.

F1 drivers are under contract to obey team orders, so it is a good bet that at the very least Hamilton will get a stern talking to. But from Hamilton’s point of view, it was all he could do to try to win the world championship; winning the race was not enough, Rosberg had to finish fourth or worse. Slowing down the pace just enough to put Rosberg in the clutches of his competitors was Hamilton’s last and only chance to win a fourth championship. Besides, Mercedes had already clinched the manufacturers’ title weeks ago, so the team really had nothing at stake.

As it turned out, Verstappen’s car fell off first and he settled into fourth spot. Even on the last lap it appeared Vettel might have been able to mount a charge on Rosberg, but the four-time F1 champion either lost his performance edge at the end or chose not to take any risks that late in the race. Or, perhaps he was simply showing his fellow German respect.

Hamilton went on to win his 10th race of the long 21-race season, but although he won the battle, Rosberg won the war. For his part, Rosberg won nine events in 2016, but dropped out of fewer races than did his teammate. Hamilton went on an amazing streak at the end of the season, winning the final four races of the year. But Rosberg shadowed him throughout, maintaining just enough points lead that there was nothing Hamilton could do.

Nico Rosberg’s mother is German, and he competes as a German. But his father, Keke Rosberg, won the 1982 world title as the first Finnish driver to compete in F1. He is also the first world champion to witness his son achieve the same result.

This is the second time the son of a former world champion has gone on to win the title, as Damon Hill, son of 1962 champion Graham Hill, won the title in 1996. Unfortunately, Graham Hill had died in an aviation accident long before Damon won the championship. Ironically, both second-generation champions performed the feat 34 years after their fathers’ titles.

It’ll be interesting to watch the relationship between Hamilton and Rosberg next year. Now that both are world champions, how will they get along? There were times during post-race in 2016 that their relationship seemed strained at best. Race drivers have egos, and it’s difficult enough keeping those egos in check in a motorsport such as NASCAR, with its level of competition parity. Put two winning drivers on the same team in F1 and give them the two best cars on the track all season, the rivalry between those drivers sometimes outweighs their allegiance to the team. With two world champions on board, it’s hard to call one driver the No. 1 guy. The powers that be at Mercedes will undoubtedly have their hands full next year.

Hamilton was gracious in defeat at Abu Dhabi. He knew that he did all he could, and he certainly made the finish of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix exciting as the top five cars were all within sight of each other.

F1 said goodbye to Jenson Button and Filipe Massa at Abu Dhabi, as their F1 driving careers come to a close. The 2017 season will welcome fresh faces, as well as new regulations including wider tires and new engine rules.

Will Mercedes remain dominant with the changes? We’ll find out soon enough, just as we’ll discover how well Nico Rosberg performs as a defending world champion.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.