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Keke Rosberg was a teenager when he swaggered into a Swedish go-kart shop as an apprentice in the early 1960s. By the time he left motorsports, his reputation for bravery, speed and muscular driving had firmly taken root.
“People were in awe of him even then, how brave he was, what a crazy fast driver this guy from Finland was,” said Stefan Johansson, who became friends with Rosberg at that shop and would grow up to race against him in Formula One in the 1980s.
Rosberg would end his career regarded as a one of F1’s great swashbucklers, a hard-charging, speed-seeking thrill master who won the 1982 championship. Now his son Nico is on the verge of matching his father’s title, but with none of his flair. Even as he piles up wins, the younger Rosberg has been called boring, bland and even bad for F1’s efforts to attract new fans.
Nico Rosberg doesn’t care, so long as his critics call him champion after this season.
“I’m here to win races and not to please everybody that’s out there,” Nico Rosberg said ahead of Sunday’s Mexican Grand Prix, where he leads Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton by 26 points with three races left.
With his bushy mustache and bruising driving, Keke Rosberg was a crowd pleaser in an era when the Formula One was far more dangerous. Over the course of his F1 career from 1978 to 1986, five drivers were killed, including two in 1982 when Rosberg won his championship. His qualifying laps at the 1985 British Grand Prix at Silverstone remain stuff of legend. He was already secure in in the pole position and returned to the track after a spell of rain to go even faster, averaging more than 160 mph, a previously unattainable speed.
“I got carried away, and that shouldn’t be the case if you want to survive,” Rosberg later said . “It was probably one of the few occasions when I felt I had lost my self-control … I should have stayed in the garage but sheer enjoyment overtook professionalism.”
Johansson, who raced against him for five years, said Keke Rosberg “epitomized what auto racing was all about at a time it was more bravery than technique. In the rain, he was spectacularly fast.”
Comparing father and son as drivers is difficult.
Nico Rosberg drives in an era when safety has been dramatically improved and tracks have been tamed with chicanes designed to slow cars into turns deemed too dangerous. When Formula One returned to Mexico City’s Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in 2015 after 23 years, designers had eliminated the notorious Peraltada corner, long regarded as one of the most fearsome in the sport.
“A lot of those elements aren’t essential anymore. Nico is clearly one of the top drivers in the world. I think maybe he doesn’t project the same bravado and the same sort of gutsy approach as his father,” Johansson said.
The past three seasons of the V6-turbo hybrid engines saw Formula One turn its back the screeching engines of the past for the quieter, low growl of modern technology. Mercedes has so dominated the series with those engines that more often than not, Rosberg is essentially just racing Hamilton as those two are so far out in front. Keke Rosberg won his title in a year a handful of drivers, including Alain Prost and Niki Lauda, could have won it.
And unlike his father, Nico Rosberg leads a quieter family life. He even grows and eats his own vegetables.
“(Keke) enjoyed a very good drink, and also a good cigarette,” former world champion driver Jackie Stewart said. “Nico is much more disciplined with his regime of fitness and so forth. He’s a modern man.”
To some, that equals boring.
Last week in Texas, Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, bemoaned a potential Rosberg title.
“If Nico won the title, it would be good for him and good for Mercedes, but it wouldn’t necessarily help the sport because there is nothing to write about him,” said Ecclestone, who has been known to jab at past champions as well.
Rosberg has lived in Hamilton’s considerable social media shadow the last two years, but his drive toward a championship has been clinical. Perhaps most important has been his mental approach in not letting the bickering rivalry with his teammate frustrate him on the track.
Rosberg is one victory shy of becoming just the fourth driver to win 10 races in a single season. He’s been so methodical in piling up points that he can win the title with two second-place finishes and a third over the final three races.
That wouldn’t be exciting, but it would be good enough to match his father and in some ways surpass him. Keke Rosberg won only one grand prix in his championship season.
“(Nico) has won many more grand prix but has not won the world championship yet,” Stewart said. “It would be a nice thing to have. I would like to see him win it.”