F1 champ Nico Rosberg on Hamilton rivalry and why he walked away

'Ruthless' Lewis' former rival opens up about his ex friend, and why his own focus now is on green machines

12 December 2021 - 00:03 By Ben Machell
Nico Rosberg was obsessed with motor racing, and admits he was only interested in how he would win the next race.
Nico Rosberg was obsessed with motor racing, and admits he was only interested in how he would win the next race.
Image: Andreas Rentz/ Getty Images

In 2016 Nico Rosberg stunned the world of motor racing by winning his first world championship at 31 — and immediately retiring. Now he’s back as a vocal climate change campaigner. How did that happen?

For a very long time, Rosberg was a Formula One driver. At the start of each race he’d climb into a car moulded to fit him perfectly, as though it were an extension of his own being, before accelerating to speeds of more than 370km/h, lap after lap, hunting down fractions of milliseconds while other men in other multimillion-pound machines swarmed around him doing the same.

Unlike Lewis Hamilton, Rosberg’s childhood friend turned arch-rival, he didn’t race with an aggressive, impulsive style. Instead, the German-Finnish driver made his name with an approach that was technical and meticulous. Something about the possibility of completing a flawless lap while strapped to four wheels and a fire-breathing engine seemed to thrill and beguile him in equal measure. “Really, it was the challenge of taking this fierce machine to the limit. And dancing,” he says, his pretty, Von Trappish features creasing into a frown. “Dancing on the rim of perfection.”

This quest for perfection led Rosberg to live a constrained, tunnel-visioned existence. As his car was moulded around him, his life was moulded to his requirements on the track. “No jetting around and partying, or anything else distracting,” he says. “Just family and racing.” He was, he continues, “a machine” when it came to preparation. “Preparing myself psychologically and in terms of fitness, understanding the physics of the car, understanding how to use data to my advantage.” This is a man who once had the paint removed from his helmet to make him slightly lighter and thus faster. He admits that this mentality made him appear “intense” to people. “I was only interested in winning the next race.”

Rosberg won plenty of races. But his path to ultimate glory — a Formula One world championship — seemed blocked. Specifically, by Hamilton. For year after year, Rosberg finished behind him in the final F1 standings. Twice, in 2014 and 2015, Rosberg came close to taking the title, only for Hamilton to overtake him in the end. Then, in the final moments of the final race of the 2016 season, Rosberg — at last — clinched a world championship for himself. Five days after taking the trophy, this intense, meticulous man did something completely unexpected. He announced his retirement and walked away from motor racing to spend more time with his wife and two daughters. At the age of 31, Rosberg, at the very peak of his powers, left the stage.

Only, now he’s back. And his second act is more unexpected than the ending of his first. Today, Rosberg wants to help save the planet from climate catastrophe. He wants us to embrace a sustainable future and to turn our backs on fossil fuels. For a man who spent much of his life burning gallons of high-grade petroleum going around in circles, this is a turnaround. He accepts that people might find this change surprising. “Of course, it’s a shift from a gas-guzzling F1 driver to being a committed environmentalist,” he says. “I call myself a ‘sustainability entrepreneur’.”

Nico Rosberg won the F1 World Drivers Championship in Abu Dhabi in November 2016 after years of losing. His wife, Vivian Sibold, and mother, Sina Rosberg, congratulate him.
Nico Rosberg won the F1 World Drivers Championship in Abu Dhabi in November 2016 after years of losing. His wife, Vivian Sibold, and mother, Sina Rosberg, congratulate him.
Image: Mark Thompson/getty

Rosberg is now 36. In the five years since retiring Rosberg has founded something called the Greentech Festival, which takes place every year in Berlin, draws thousands of attendees and serves as an expo for green technologies. He’s put money into reforestation projects in Germany and schemes promoting sustainable agro-forestry in South America. A regular at Davos, he’s invested in green transport start-ups, including companies developing electric scooters and — genuinely — flying electric taxis.

He’s also involved financially with Formula E — motor racing with electric vehicles — and has his own team, Rosberg X Racing, which competes in a spin-off competition, Extreme E. Teams race against each other in parts of the world that have already been affected by climate change, from the Arctic to rainforests to help raise awareness and provide practical help. “The last race was in Senegal, where there’s drought and plastic pollution in the ocean.” As well as racing there, they planted mangroves along the country’s coast, “which is great carbon storage for preserving their ecosystems”.

What happened? How do you go from scraping the paint off your helmet to planting mangroves in Senegal? The short answer is that, during his racing days, he worked intensively with a psychologist who told him that helping people — doing good work in the wider world — is rewarding. To Rosberg, with his myopic focus on driving, it was genuine food for thought. “I made a promise to live with  greater contribution.”

But why was he seeing a psychologist in the first place? To understand we need to look at who Rosberg is and his uneasy relationship with motorsports. Rosberg’s father, Keke, was also a world-championship-winning F1 driver. Although he stopped racing shortly after his son was born, he became manager to Mika Häkkinen, the Finnish world championship-winning F1 driver. Young Nico grew up in Monaco — “a  privileged upbringing” — with a pair of racing legends looming large in his life. It was impossible for him to avoid racing. “My school was on the Formula One paddock in Monaco,” he says. “You could see the cars below the window — Michael Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen jumping in, putting on their seatbelts and driving off during my mathematics lessons.”

In his heart, he wanted to be like them. “I never had self-confidence. I never believed it would  happen."

Gradually, he edged closer to the sport. He began racing go-karts, which is how he met and befriended a young boy from Stevenage called Lewis Hamilton. Though from markedly different backgrounds, they became close. Rosberg’s father created a karting team for them to compete in, helping them to take baby steps towards Formula One. Rosberg remembers being about 14 with Hamilton in Greece. “He came on holiday with us on my dad’s boat,” he says, describing how, one evening under the stars, they talked about how cool it would be if they ended up on the same F1 team, fighting it out for the world championship. “And that’s what happened,” he says, shaking his head. “Insane.”

WATCH | 'Rosberg reveals why he walked away.'

In 2013, the friends became Mercedes team-mates. But it wasn’t what they'd imagined back on the yacht. It was a strange dynamic: they raced under the same banner, shared the same team, the same managers, technicians and support staff and yet, quickly became principal rivals.

“We had a battle inside a team,” he explains. Emotionally, this was messy. When your main competitor drives for another team, he says, you know that whatever happens, everyone on your team has your back. But in the case of Rosberg and Hamilton, how could either driver be sure that the other wasn’t being treated as a favourite? That much more groomed for glory?

“You’ve got this changing balance of, I don’t know … admiration? Respect?” he says, “Sometimes it’s one boss who’s more on the other side,” meaning the Mercedes decision-makers favouring one driver over another. He frowns. “It’s a tough environment to be in.”

He struggled with feelings of jealousy — and offers a brief treatise on that emotion. “Why are you jealous when your partner admires another person?” he wonders. “Because we have a strong need for recognition from the people around us. When your partner admires someone else, you lose that recognition for a while. It’s painful. But it’s not your partner’s fault. It’s your own. Your own imbalance. So rather than shouting at your partner, be understanding, show your vulnerability, explain that it hurts.”

Rosberg has been with his wife, Vivian, since they were both 18. So he  gets jealous? “If she sees a good-looking person and notices him, yeah. But I understand why, and I know what to do with that emotion.” Vivian runs a creamery in Ibiza, where Rosberg and his family live when not in Monaco.

As well as the intra-team tensions with Hamilton, Rosberg found being in the public eye difficult. Early in his career he was insecure and spent a lot of time “being scared of other people thinking I’m a loser or not taking me seriously”. This lack of confidence would often be misinterpreted. “My shyness would get confused with arrogance. I was extremely shy — people would think I was cold when actually, I was just terrified.”

There were four-year-old girls in front of me with their dads, booing me, giving me the thumbs down. Abuse online was worse. 

Really, he says, he just wanted to be liked. But as the rivalry with Hamilton deepened, many Formula One fans picked sides. It became partisan. “There were the two camps: the Nico camp and the Hamilton fans. All the Hamilton fans were against me, of course,” he says. He describes how, at one race, he walked past a stand of fans and was jeered by a group of girls. “There were four-year-old girls in front of me with their dads, booing me, giving me the thumbs down. Abuse online was worse." Eventually he got rid of social media entirely, focusing instead on meditation.

And Hamilton kept beating him. Within F1, there was a general belief that for all Rosberg’s technical skill, he lacked his rival’s killer instinct. “At the time it was like, ‘He’s probably too nice to be world champion against the ruthless Lewis,’ ” he says. Deep down, he says, he knew that there was some truth in it.

Rosberg was able to summon the psychological strength to keep getting back on the horse — back in the car — and distil his disappointment and insecurity into something powerful. Self-doubt, he says, can be a “huge” driving force. “I lost to Lewis three years in a row. It was so painful, the last time, I locked myself in a hotel room. I reminded myself that this is an opportunity to push, push, push like hell,” he says. “It enhanced my motivation, my focus.”

He took the 2016 World Championship in the final race of the season, at Abu Dhabi. “It went to the wire. To the last corner. It couldn’t have been more intense,” he says. “And winning against Lewis, in the same car, after having struggled against him for decades? It was perfect.” Nobody has beaten Hamilton to a World Championship since. In hindsight, you can understand why he chose to quit while he was ahead. “I wanted to avoid going out as a has-been,” he says.

Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain celebrates on the podium during the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at Jeddah Corniche Circuit on December 5, 2021 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain celebrates on the podium during the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at Jeddah Corniche Circuit on December 5, 2021 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Image: Mark Thompson / Getty Images

But why not stick it out for a few more years for the money?

“I gave up $100m on the table,” he says brightly. But he was already rich and wanted to be with his daughters, Naila and Alaïa. “I longed for a different life. You don’t have flexibility when you’re racing,” he says. “It was the right decision for my family.”

Despite becoming a “sustainability entrepreneur”, Rosberg says he doesn’t feel guilty about the time he spent in Formula One. While he believes the sport has a “moral obligation” to accelerate change, he’s hopeful that this will happen.

While in Monaco, Rosberg uses an ordinary car-share service when he needs to get around. He owns one petrol vehicle, a Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing, and has a couple of high-performance electric cars. Like many millennials, he’s had to work hard to persuade older family members that, yes, climate change is a thing.

Rosberg sketches a utopian near-future of carbon-neutral transport, available at the touch of a button. Soon, he promises, there will be an app — “the Netflix of mobility” — where, for a subscription it will be possible for anyone to have access to a vast network of electric vehicles.

His life in Formula One seems a long time ago now. For years, he had anxiety nightmares about racing. “Most of the time it was a recurring one where I was late to the start.” But he’s not had that dream for a while now. He’s got other things on his mind.