With Lewis Hamilton purposefully slowing him down, two other drivers hard on his tail and the title on the line, German driver Nico Rosberg held his nerve to win the Formula One championship for the first time on Sunday.
Rosberg finished second at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix behind defending champion Lewis Hamilton, who won the race from pole position for his 53rd GP win. But Rosberg was 12 points ahead of his Mercedes teammate coming into the title showdown and only needed to finish no lower than third if Hamilton won.
In the end, it felt like the most difficult second place of his career.
“It was so intense, the race, so tough,” said Rosberg, who finished runner-up to Hamilton in the past two years.
Rosberg repeatedly wiped his face and lowered his head several times in the post-race news conference, appearing emotionally exhausted as he tilted back into his chair and rubbed his eyes.
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Still, he expects to find plenty of energy to celebrate his win.
“Tonight’s going to be absolutely nuts,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to be available for a few days.”
The 31-year-old Rosberg finally emulated his father Keke Rosberg, who won the F1 title in 1982.
“Two Rosbergs are world champions … if I’ve got my statistics right,” Rosberg said jokingly, before recounting how his father has adopted a keen but discreet profile. “Every Saturday night I get a text from him: ‘Pedal to the metal.’ That’s it. It’s good that he’s let me get on with it.”
Hamilton blatantly disobeyed team orders to speed up near the end, thus backing Rosberg toward Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen in third and fourth places, respectively.
“If I had dropped behind those guys it was over,” Rosberg said.
Vettel could not quite pass Rosberg, finishing third ahead of Verstappen and fourth overall in the championship behind Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo.
Hamilton, meanwhile, misses out on a third straight title and fourth overall, despite ending the year with 10 wins – one more than Rosberg.
“Nico drove well not to make a mistake,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton slowed in the later stages of the race to increase the chances of Rosberg being overtaken by other drivers. If Rosberg had been passed by Vettel and Verstappen and had finished fourth, Hamilton would have held onto his title.
When his team told him over race radio to up the tempo, Hamilton replied bluntly: “I suggest you guys let us race.”
Even a direct order from Mercedes’ executive director Paddy Lowe four laps from the end did not work.
Rosberg did not criticize Hamilton’s tactics, saying he understood that it was the British driver’s best chance.
Hamilton was emphatically unapologetic.
“I don’t know why they just didn’t let us race,” he said. “It’s a bit of a shame.”
Vettel was a wheel’s length away from him on the final lap, but Rosberg kept his cool and his elation was evident as he let out a delighted screech of “Yes! World champion” when he crossed the line.
Then he jumped out of his car and danced around the track before being hugged by his mechanics.
Hamilton offered him a hug, Rosberg accepted but it was a brief embrace, and then he carried on celebrating as he was tossed into the air by his Mercedes crew.
He then grabbed Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone and lifted him into the air, while Ecclestone congratulated him.
Hamilton stood in the corner sipping water as Vettel – himself a four-time F1 champion – smiled and congratulated Rosberg.
On the podium, Rosberg’s eyes were watering as the weight of his achievement sank in and he thanked his wife, who also wiped away tears nearby.
“A big congratulation to Nico. Good job man,” Hamilton said, and they shook hands more enthusiastically this time.
Rosberg survived earlier drama when he was close to colliding with Verstappen on lap 21 as they jostled for second place.
For the Mercedes pair, the race had started serenely.
With the sun setting on the Yas Marina track, Hamilton was on pole for the 12th time this season – a career best – and 61st overall.
He got away cleanly, as did Rosberg – albeit cautiously.
Meanwhile, Verstappen’s car went into a spin following contact shortly after the start, dropping him down from sixth to last, but the daring Dutchman soon caught up.
Hamilton came in for his first tire change on the eighth lap, and Rosberg came in for his on the next lap.
But the German driver was held up for a couple of seconds by Vettel, who was just coming in for his stop, and when he came out, he was behind Verstappen and Hamilton.
Rosberg needed to overtake Verstappen to get closer to Hamilton.
Verstappen, the youngest driver to win an F1 race, has earned a reputation for his risky, borderline dangerous overtaking and has upset other drivers this season.
As he and Rosberg jostled for second place, they twice almost came into contact, but Rosberg showed great courage to then overtake him.
“The battle out there with Max was unreal. I don’t want to experience that again sometime soon,” Rosberg said. “Max went full on aggressive. As usual.”
He was back on his tail later on, but Vettel was between them.
“Nico defended well and closed the inside,” said Vettel, who made a point of praising Rosberg as a worthy champion at the post-race news conference.
Last season, Hamilton sealed the championship with three races to spare, while in 2014 it also went down to the final race in Abu Dhabi. However, Rosberg was in contention then because of a double points rule.
Rosberg won the first four races this year to show Hamilton that he meant business.
As Hamilton struggled with engine problems early on, Rosberg opened up a lead of 43 points.
Hamilton bounced back to lead by 19 points heading into the summer break.
Rosberg then turned the tables to lead again by 33 points, only for Hamilton to respond with three straight wins heading into Abu Dhabi.
“Can’t believe it’s over,” Rosberg said. “I’m ecstatic.”
Hamilton won on the last day of the season in 2008, beating Brazilian Felipe Massa by one point.
The previous year, Hamilton lost by one point to Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.
This time, Rosberg beat him by five.