Class is one of the dividing factors of our society. Working Class and Upper Class, it’s like them and us. Formula One has, historically, been an upper-class sport. Its earliest drivers often being chief engineers, having their own hired teams and sponsors. And that doesn’t account for travel expenses. There is a glass ceiling to get to the top of motor racing. Only those with the right backing can, and do, make it.
Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton had probably one of the greatest F1 rivalries of the 2010s. It’s a tale of class, nationality, family ties, and team squabbling that, while common, was certainly very explosive in the Mercedes paddock.
The narrative that Lewis Hamilton is a working-class hero is somewhat inaccurate. He was not the richest, and his Dad did take up 4 jobs to support his son’s burgeoning career; it would be more accurate to call him middle class. Starting with Go-Karting at the age of 6, he signed up with McLaren’s young driver’s program in 1998 at 13. He would compete in Formula A, Super A, and Intercontinental A. There, he would meet the other man in our tale.
Nico Rosberg was a second-generation racer. The son of Finnish driver Keke Rosberg, the 1982 F1 World Champion, and growing up in Monaco and Ibiza, he was from a different world than Lewis Hamilton. Rosberg’s competitive spirit saw him achieve some excellent grades in school and Go-Karting and going through the Junior and feeder leagues. He had his first drive in an F1 car in 2003, in a Williams. 2 years later, he’d be driving a Williams in F1 full time.
By all accounts, both boys were friends and went up the leagues together. They even had their own team, financed by and for them by Keke Rosberg. However, the seeds of competition had always been there. According to one associate of theirs, both boys, fuelled by adrenaline or teenage testosterone, would compete against each other for everything, even eating pizza.
Rosberg’s entry into F1 happened in 2005. 2 years later, Hamilton would enter F1 for McLaren and win his first championship in 2008. Rosberg would be competitive in F1, and score points in most of his races, even scoring the odd podium; he did not yet have a career win. A move to Mercedes in 2010 saw him, team, with Michael Schumacher until 2012, when Lewis Hamilton joined him.
This is where the rivalry begins.
2013 was the first season that Hamilton and Rosberg would-be teammates, since their Go-Karting days. And tensions would build up. While the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix is remembered more for the Multi 21 incident in Red Bull, team orders saw Ross Brawn keep Rosberg in 4th place when he asked to overtake Hamilton.
By 2014, as Mercedes became more competitive, Rosberg’s and Hamilton’s relationship began to deteriorate. An incident at the Qualifying for the 2014 Monaco Grand Prix saw Rosberg drive into the slip road, causing Yellow flags to come out and forcing Lewis Hamilton to abandon his last qualifying lap. As determined by race stewards and Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, this accident was believed to be foul play by Hamilton. This was followed by an announcement that Hamilton wasn’t Rosberg’s friend anymore.
At the Hungarian Grand Prix that same year, Rosberg was leading the race, with Hamilton at the back of the Grid; his refusal to slow down for Nico coated the German a podium finish. Things would only get uglier in Belgium, as both their cars would make contact, causing damage that would write off Hamilton’s race and damage Rosberg’s front wing. Though 2nd place Rosberg was punished for this and booed by the spectators, Hamilton’s comments of the incident being deliberate showcased a sense of victimhood that made some fan’s sympathy for him wane.
The season ended in Abu Dhabi, with Hamilton winning the race and title. Rosberg did congratulate the champion, though, after that season, some would call it civility.
2015’s F1 season saw Hamilton retain his World Championship. This season was not without incidents either. The Malaysian Grand Prix had Hamilton taking pole position despite suggestions that Rosberg had deliberately blocked him on his final run. Rosberg had already abandoned his lap but did not move aside as Hamilton came past, forcing him off the racing line. During the post-race interview, you had Rosberg pretend to be a reporter, questioning Lewis about the incident. Hilarious, I am sure you’d agree.
The big one, however, was at the US Grand Prix. Hamilton, as I have stated, retained the championship, with three races to spare. Rosberg came second in that particular race but third in the championship. And if you know what I am talking about, then you remember the cap incident. Rosberg sat in the cooldown room, looking decidedly annoyed. A pumped and happy Hamilton threw the second-place cap to Rosberg from across the room, only for Rosberg to throw it back at him, with the stormiest face this side of Texas. Although played off as a bit of ‘fun’ by Hamilton, the looks of things from the POV of Rosberg suggests something less playful and downright nasty.
The last three races of that season seemed to make Rosberg snap. Hamilton was the golden boy, and Rosberg the number two. It was almost as if the divide that initially separated the men had shifted. Rosberg would win the last three races of the season, in defiance of his team, of Hamilton, of the perception that he was less than both and his father.
Those 3 race wins at the end of 2015 saw Rosberg, at the start of the 2016 season, have a 7 race winning streak. Four of those wins being the first four races of the season. By the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix, Rosberg had a 43 point lead on Hamilton. However, both men would not finish the Spanish Grand Prix, as Rosberg entered an incorrect engine mode due to an error the German had made on the formation lap. That meant he was slower than Hamilton coming out of turn 3, and Hamilton moved alongside Rosberg to overtake for the lead. Rosberg forced Hamilton onto grass, and both men were out of the race. Hamilton was blamed for the incident but not punished.
The drama continued into the Austrian Grand Prix of that same season. A Rosberg pole and a good lead in the race, despite engine trouble. In the final laps, Hamilton was able to overtake Rosberg, in turn, one of the final laps, and As Hamilton turned in to make the corner of Turn 3, Rosberg went straight on, causing a collision and damaging the front wing of Rosberg’s car. Rosberg would come fourth, gain two penalty points, and the blame for that incident.
The season closed in Abu Dhabi, where Rosberg’s point lead of 12 required him to have a podium finish. Hamilton needed to be in the top 4, with Rosberg coming no higher than fourth. Hamilton would defy team orders in the race, slowing down, encouraging either Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel or Red Bull’s Max Verstappen to overtake Rosberg so that he may secure the title. Whether they wanted to give the middle finger to Hamilton or didn’t take the initiative, I will leave it for you to consider. Hamilton won the race, but with a 2nd place Podium finish, Rosberg won the 2016 Formula One World Championship, bucking the trend of that year being such an infamously bad one. We may have lost Carrie Fisher, Donald Trump may have been made US President, but Nico Rosberg became the champion.
Rosberg would then announce retirement from Formula One, having “reached the pinnacle of his career”. As of 2021, he and Hamilton are still not friends, though the former has expressed hope for a reconciliation. Whether they do or not is one thing, but what we know is that for the 4 years we had them both at Mercedes, it was a wild ride.