Thursday, September 02, 2010

Like Father, Unlike Son

Imagine you're in your late teens. Growing up in Monaco. The son of a multi-millionaire. The world is your oyster. Probably, you need never really do an honest day's work in your life if you don't want to. Sounds like a dream come true? Perhaps, but on the other side of the coin, that very ease, the way that everything has been handed to you means it's hard to imagine that you're going to have the application, the drive, to really make the most of the gifts that fortune has bestowed upon you.

So in a way, it's a little surprising that 1982 World Champion Keijo Rosberg's son Nico has been as successful as he has in Formula 1. An awful lot of sons of famous fathers have tried their hands at motorsport, but the success stories have been relatively thin on the ground, at least at the very top level. And I can't help thinking that being the comfortably-off son of a famous father probably doesn't help a young driver's focus and determination. I suspect that it is no coincidence that the two most successful sons of famous fathers both lost those fathers while they were still themselves children - Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve. Perhaps it was some sense of insecurity which gave those two a determination which such as the Mansell brothers, Nelson Piquet Jr, Nicolas Prost et al, have seemed to lack (though the Mansell brothers at least, never really showed any real sign of having the fundamental ability to do the job anyway).

Nico Rosberg, though, is an awkward exception to the rule. In his early junior career, he didn't really stand out to me. He attracted attention principally for getting that Williams test back in 2003 when he was only 17, and one couldn't help but think that Frank was simply doing a favour for the man who had won the 1982 title for his team. Certainly, as late as 2004, when, in his second year in the championship, he finished fourth in the F3 Euroseries behind Premat, LaPierre and champion Jamie Green, there was nothing to suggest that he was any qui from a host of talented youngsters, not all of whom could possibly find a place on the F1 grid.

But then he moved to GP2 with ART and, while I expected British F3 Champion Nelson Piquet Jr to win the battle of the 'sons of famous fathers', and reckoned Alexandre Premat likely to be the quicker man in Frederic Vasseur's team, he went and won the championship at his first attempt, narrowly edging out the more fancied Heikki Kovalainen. And all of a sudden, he was rather more than just a fresh-faced son of a famous father. Scratch beneath the surface, and there was always reason to think that Rosberg might have been a cut above many of the young hopefuls in the junior formulae.

For one thing, while it would be easy to caricature Rosberg as the spoiled son of a 'racing dad' he is probably one of the brightest men on the grid. He turned down a place to study engineering at Imperial College London in order to further his racing career, and apparently achieved the highest score ever recorded on the 'Engineering Aptitude Test' given to all new Williams drivers when he joined the team in 2006. It's striking too that Rosberg Jr always sounded calm and confident when dealing with the media, even when at the time of his F1 debut at the age of just 20, back in 2006, in marked contrast with Piquet Jr who always gave the unfortunate impression of a young man with a chip on his shoulder (though to be fair, the difficult atmosphere of the Renault team during his sojourn there can't have helped).

On the surface, he's a very different character to his father. Where Keke was famous for a very non-PC willingness to speak his mind, and had a popular image as something of a 'hard man' of the F1 grid, his son looks like a man who has walked straight out of a shampoo commercial, has been christened 'Britney' by harsher members of the F1 fraternity, and always sounds 'on message' when speaking to the press. Asked if he would have preferred to have raced in his father's more free-wheeling era, a time when drivers could smoke without being subject to brickbats for compromising their race fitness, he responded simply that he hated smoking. But beneath that, I wonder if it is not only a natural aptitude for hustling an F1 car that he has inherited from his father. Just as Rosberg Sr, for all his larger than life persona, was a tremendously determined man whose path to the top was not easy, a man who overcame adversity to win, so Rosberg Jr is the gilded youth born into a life of comfort and riches, who could have lived the life of a feckless playboy, but who has chosen to try to show that he is every bit as good as his father.

The question remains though, just how good is Nico Rosberg? He certainly made an impact when he made his F1 debut at the Sakhir circuit at the age of just 20, back in 2006. Picking up fastest lap in his first ever race, becoming the youngest person ever to do so in the process, he followed this up with a third place grid position two weeks later in Malaysia, in a Williams that was hardly the class of the field. At the time, Jackie Stewart talked about him as a potential future mega-star and while Stewart's view might have been influenced by his work for Williams sponsor RBS, he's not a man who's easily impressed.

After that explosive start, though, Rosberg's career has so far failed to live up to that early promise. The 2006 Williams was not one of the better cars to come out of Grove, let down as it was by terrible reliability and a lack of high speed downforce that meant he would make the points just once more all season. Over the year as a whole, it is fair to say that he was comprehensively outpaced by Mark Webber. There's no shame in that, Webber is a very quick driver, perhaps quicker than anyone realised at the time, and he was then into fifth year in the sport, while Rosberg was still finding his feet, but still one wonders, if Rosberg is really quick, wouldn't he have shown better against Webber?

Three more years at Williams brought a steady stream of points, and a couple of podiums but no victories, though as his best finish was a second place behind Fernando Alonso at Singapore in 2008, arguably, he is a Grand Prix winner in spirit, if not in fact. But after four years in the sport, we are arguably no closer to knowing quite how good Rosberg really is. He had no trouble outclassing his Williams team mates, Alexander Wurz and Kazuki Nakajima but its hard to quantify how much of an achievement that is. Were Wurz and Nakajima perfectly solid, competent peddlers who were made to look second rate by an exceptionally gifted team mate? Or were the late noughties Williams a good deal better quicker than we realised?

Williams themselves didn't seem quite sure. There were dark mutterings that, for all Rosberg's clean-cut image and sponsor-friendliness, he just didn't have the overwhelming drive to win that the best of his rivals did. And where Williams certainly did have good reason to complain is in pointing out that Rosberg threw away a fair number of good points finishes - most notably at Singapore in 2009, with silly errors. There, he had looked a safe bet for a podium, and perhaps even an outside shot for victory, when he wandered over the white line exiting the pits and picked up a drive-through penalty which put him out of contention. And what if those rumours that he'd been approached to replace Fernando Alonso at Mclaren and turned that opportunity down are true? That he (or his manager) didn't believe he was fundamentally good enough to take on Lewis Hamilton in identical machinery? If it's true, it suggests a man who doesn't have the self confidence of a natural born winner.

A move to Mercedes for 2010 ought to have answered these questions. If Rosberg had matched, or even bettered Jenson Button, then we could be sure that he was amongst the very quickest in the business - a potential future world champion. Except that Button jumped ship to Mclaren and Rosberg found himself paired up with a returning Michael Schumacher. If the younger German had feared that he would be put in the shade by the 7 time world champion, he had no reason to worry. Rosberg has generally been a shade faster than his more illustrious team mate, and has certainly been a good deal more consistent, bringing the car home where Schumacher has seemingly been a magnet for trouble.

But is that because Rosberg is much better than we realised, a man who can beat the outstanding driver of the last 20 years? Or is it simply a sign that Michael Schumacher is over the hill, race rusty, long past his best? There is simply no way of knowing for sure. The truth may lie somewhere in between. While I just can't quite bring myself to believe that Schumacher, at the height of his powers, would have found himself trailing Nico Rosberg by 44 points to 102, it may be that Schumacher looks less competitive than he is because we are underestimating Rosberg. After all, if Schumacher had been trailing, say, Hamilton by a similar margin, one might almost be tempted to congratulate the old stager for putting up such a good fight at 42. If Schumacher were to call time on his increasingly ill-advised looking come back and hand the car over to Nick Heidfeld, we'd be much closer to knowing the answer.

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Blogger danish said...

it's nice article

12:16 PM  

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