Despite his win in Belgium, it feels like, for the third year in a row, Nico Rosberg's chances of winning the Formula One World Championship may be slipping away.
It all started so well: four wins from the first four races and a 57-point lead over his Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton. But since then, the pendulum has swung away from the German. Nico's won just two Grands Prix to Lewis' six, and that 57-point lead has turned into a nine-point deficit.
Of course the 2016 title battle is far from over, with eight races to go and 200 points on offer. Nico could well catch his teammate, though Lewis is now the favourite. But whether or not he becomes World Champion this year, Rosberg has earned a place among F1's greats.
The numbers speak for themselves. Rosberg has won 20 Grands Prix, putting him joint 14th on the all-time list. That’s more than Jenson Button, Graham Hill or Emerson Fittipaldi – and four more than Stirling Moss, the next-most-successful non-World Champion in F1 history. Nico’s qualifying record is even more impressive: he’s started from pole 28 times, the ninth highest total.
Sure, most of Rosberg’s success has come in the last two-and-a-half years, at the wheel of a dominant Mercedes. But Nico demonstrated his talent even before he was handed the fastest car on the grid.
He came into F1 in 2006 as the inaugural champion of the GP2 feeder series, and finished seventh at his very first Grand Prix – setting the fastest lap along the way. He spent his first four years as a regular points-scorer in a relatively uncompetitive Williams team, with the high point a second-place finish in Singapore in 2008.
He then spent three years alongside Michael Schumacher at the new Mercedes team. Though Schumacher clearly wasn’t his incredible old self after three years away from F1, the margin by which Rosberg outperformed his seven-time World Champion teammate was very impressive.
In their three years together, Nico scored 324 points to Michael’s 197 and notched up five podium finishes to Schumacher’s one. At the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix, Rosberg dominated, taking his first pole by half a second and his first race win by 20 seconds, leading 48 of the 56 laps along the way.
And though Hamilton has generally had the edge over Rosberg these past three-and-a-half years, it hasn’t been anything like the gulf between drivers in recent dominant teams, such as Hakkinen-Coulthard at McLaren, Schumacher-Barrichello at Ferrari or Vettel-Webber at Red Bull. It’s a genuinely tight contest, most reminiscent of the awesome battle between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in their two years together at McLaren in the late 1980s.
In their 70 races as teammates, Rosberg’s won 19 times to Hamilton’s 28, been on pole 27 times to Hamilton’s 29, and scored 1,033 points to Hamilton’s 1,186. Of the 26 times the Mercedes drivers finished a race first and second, Lewis led Nico home 16 times while Nico came out on top ten times.
Rosberg’s record at Mercedes – against two of the five or six most talented drivers ever in identical equipment – is why he should be considered among F1’s greats. All he needs now is a World Championship.
- Jonathan Jones, a political researcher and F1 fan who writes about US politics for the New Statesman.