Illustration by Minnie Leaver
You’re in a pub, a few cheeky Diet Cokes down, and your friend tells you that Lewis Hamilton is the GOAT. What do you do?
Option one: agree. It’s fair enough. Hamilton is an excellent driver and holds most of the records that matter in Formula One.
Option two: dispute their concept of the GOAT. Different drivers perform differently at different points in their career, in different cars, on different tracks, and in different ways – overtaking, single-lap pace, wet weather and the like. It’s impossible to define GOAT.
Or option three: order another round of cheeky Diet Cokes, look your friend in the eye, wink, and bring up Nico Rosberg and the 2016 season…
Nico Rosberg had been Lewis Hamilton’s team-mate since 2013 – that is, the only other guy in the same car as Hamilton. The only guy who could be directly compared to him during Mercedes’ era of dominance. Generally, people thought Rosberg was a good driver, very quick on his day, but not quite in the same tier as Hamilton, lacking that final bit of natural skill that separates the great drivers from the world champions.
2014 and 2015 confirmed this impression. Rosberg did push Hamilton – in 2014, the championship even went down to the final race, though he lost in the end. In 2015, it was less close. Hamilton had such a points advantage that he sealed the deal with three races remaining. Rosberg looked destined to become a number two driver: demoralised, deprioritised by the team, confined to a career of being the runner-up.
Few people paid attention when Rosberg won the last three races of 2015. After all, the title had already been decided. Hamilton dismissed Rosberg’s late charge by blithely noting that winning the championship was more important than winning the final three races.
In fact, it was the start of a remarkable run. Rosberg romped to victory in the first four races of 2016 as well, racking up a seismic 43-point lead over Hamilton.
Hamilton was worried. In the fourth race of the season, in Spain, he needed to launch his comeback. Instead, he launched his car into the gravel trap due to a dramatic crash with Rosberg on the first lap. Neither driver was penalised and you can blame both of them – Rosberg could have left more room on the right, Hamilton could have gone to the left. But it showed how aggressive Rosberg was willing to be in his bid to beat Hamilton.
Of course, Hamilton clawed himself back into contention. Did you expect anything less? After Spain, he won six of the next seven races, while Rosberg registered a string of mediocre results – seventh in Monaco, fifth in Canada, off the podium in Austria and Germany too. By the 12th race, Hamilton had turned his 43-point deficit into a 19-point lead. The comeback was remarkable. Rosberg had started strong but looked set to be defeated for the third season in a row.
Yet Rosberg managed to reset his season, winning the next three races. Hamilton then retired from the fourth with an engine penalty. Cradling a 32-point lead, all Rosberg had to do was finish in second every remaining race if Hamilton won them all.
Crossing the line in Abu Dhabi, he screams to his wife on the team radio. You can hear the emotion. After three years of promise, hope, and disappointment, the reserved, level-headed German is no longer holding back: “NUPPY, WE DID IT!”.
“It?” Beating Lewis Hamilton.
Five days later, he retires from Formula One.
Your friend in the pub will now interject (if they haven’t already) with three reasons why Rosberg in 2016 does not disprove their claim that Hamilton is the GOAT.
Objection one: Rosberg won by luck. If Hamilton’s engine hadn’t blown in Malaysia, then all else equal, he would have won the championship. This is true. But without his lead, Rosberg might have pushed more, taken more risks. And even if Malaysia did swing things, he was remarkably close all season – close enough to capitalise on Malaysia.
Objection two: Rosberg is not as quick as Hamilton. This is almost certainly true. But speed is not everything. Throughout Rosberg’s career, he was praised for his technical understanding and ability to fine-tune a car to suit his driving style; he recorded the highest ever score on the Engineering Aptitude Test of his old team. In 2016, he changed his helmet paint job to lighten it by 80 grams, which might sound trivial until you consider that he beat Hamilton to pole in Japan by 0.013 seconds. The mental strength required to lose two years in a row and come back from his mid-season slump should not be underestimated. And he showed bravery and skill fitting of a world champion; in the season finale, with the highest stakes, he delivered a quick, crucial, and clean pass on Max Verstappen, who was an erratic and aggressive young gun with nothing to lose.
The final, and perhaps most cutting objection: Rosberg is not a true racing driver. If he really did love driving, and really was the best, then he wouldn’t have quit as soon as he won. But don’t forget the toll that being an F1 driver, racing around 20 countries for most of the year, puts on drivers and their families. And to my mind – quitting at your peak takes true mental strength.
Will your friend accept your defences? I don’t know. But why don’t you order another round to discuss them further?