What happens when you achieve your professional goal in life? Do you keep going, trying to hit the repeat button until you start to fail? How much money is enough? How much success is sufficient? How much more do you want to work, need to work, to make your life complete? How important is that work-life balance? Can you look your partner or child in the face and say ‘I’m putting you first, before everything’?
These are some of the questions to arise following the decision by Nico Rosberg, Formula One’s new World Champion, to quit the sport 5 days after securing the title in Abu Dhabi. To say it was a bolt from the blue is an understatement. His wife didn’t know until the day after the race, even though Rosberg himself had driven his final Grand Prix at the Yas Marina circuit knowing ‘…that it could be my last race…’
The world’s media had no idea what was coming when he took to the stage at the FIA Prizegiving in Vienna last Friday. He explained that he had been contemplating retirement as soon as he realised the title was within his grasp, specifically from the Japanese Grand Prix onwards. The sheer effort required to beat team mate Lewis Hamilton had been immense, and in a finely worded statement the key section was this;
“This season…was so damn tough. I pushed like crazy in every area after the disappointments of the last two years; they fuelled my motivation to levels I had never experienced before. And of course that had an impact on the ones I love, too – it was a whole family effort of sacrifice, putting everything behind our target. I cannot find enough words to thank my wife Vivian; she has been incredible. She understood that this year was the big one, our opportunity to do it, and created the space for me to get full recovery between every race, looking after our daughter each night, taking over when things got tough and putting our championship first.”
So that was it. Rosberg had achieved his lifetime’s ambition, reaching the pinnacle of Formula One, becoming World Champion, defeating team mate and triple champion Lewis Hamilton and, what is more, emulating the success of his father Keke. He was not prepared, he said, to try and match the sacrifice required to defend his title. His energy and focus now shift to his family, to Vivian and their young child, to a life beyond racing. Mission accomplished.
The response to Rosberg’s decision has sometimes bordered on the hysterical as the media on the one hand struggle to understand his decision and yet find themselves applauding his courage in being prepared to do the thing that most successful people fail to do; Quit While Ahead.
His professional obituaries were rushed out, with a sour edge to some declaring that Nico Rosberg was merely ‘good’ but never ‘great’. His decision to quit rankles some observers. The reliability problems which undermined Lewis Hamilton’s campaign were much-mentioned, more so than his disastrous starts from pole position at races including Australia and Italy, or the fact that even those close to him felt he never truly turned up at the Singapore Grand Prix.
Rosberg has reason to be proud of his achievement, rising above the sordid debate over whether he is ‘worthy’. From the moment Lewis Hamilton won the 2015 World Championship he appeared to take his foot off the gas, allowing Rosberg to win the final three races of the season and build important momentum ahead of 2016. If you count all of the races in the 13 months since Hamilton won the 2015 title, he has won 10 Grands Prix, Rosberg 12. In their four years together at Mercedes Hamilton has won 32 races to Rosberg’s 22, two titles to Rosberg’s one, and there is a view held by many that on ultimate pace the British ace is about a tenth of a second quicker per lap than Rosberg. To some that means Rosberg was simply lucky to win a title, to others an indication of just how much further he had to dig in order to defy his faster team mate.
In Damon Hill’s recently published autobiography Watching the Wheels he writes; “Surely the man or woman who gives everything they have to beat those for whom things are a little easier deserves more credit, rather than disdain, for not having as much natural ability.”
It’s appropriate that those words come from Hill, for like Rosberg he also had a World Championship winning father, and so too was he branded a ‘good’ but not ‘great’ driver due to the fact that his Williams-Renault was the class of the field in 1996. Never mind that he had to do what he did, drive the car to its limit, never quality off the front row of the grid, fend off the likes of highly fancied team mate Jacques Villeneuve and Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher.
Hill was gone from Formula One within 3 years of winning his title, and in the book he admits that he didn’t want to do his final season with Jordan in 1999. He sometimes parked the car during races even though there was nothing wrong with it. He’d simply had enough.
Rosberg will never face such a decline, he will only ever be remembered as the World Champion who retired to look after his family. In doing so he has turned his back on probably €20m of earnings as a Mercedes driver over the next couple of seasons, not to mention the additional earnings he could make by seeing out his career in some lesser team, making up the numbers.
For him, whatever money he has earned is enough. His sporting success is sufficient. His ambition as regards Formula One has been achieved. He is the man who realised on November 27th that This is as Good as it Gets, re-set his priorities towards family and walked away a happy man. What a feeling that must be.