After finally getting the better of longtime rival Lewis Hamilton to become Formula One champion, the weight is off Nico Rosberg’s shoulders and he has the chance to really show what he can do.
But at 31, the German driver is already into his peak years and only has a limited time left at the top.
Rosberg showed impressive mental resilience to get the better of Hamilton over a topsy-turvy season, and the title victory was even sweeter considering that they have been competing against each other since their karting days as teens.
“It feels like I have been racing him forever and always he has just managed to edge me out,” Rosberg said after clinching the title at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday. “He is just an amazing driver and one of the best in history. That makes it so much more satisfying that I took the world championship away from him.”
For Rosberg to be spoken of alongside other F1 greats, he needs to do more than beating Hamilton over 21 races in essentially the same Mercedes car. He was thoroughly consistent, but Rosberg’s title win lacked the “wow” factor in terms of pure driving.
He needs to dominate a campaign the way Hamilton and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel — and others before them — have done.
Rosberg’s tally of 23 career race wins is commendable but unremarkable considering Hamilton — who is the same age — has a whopping 53 wins. Vettel, who is two years younger, already has 42.
Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso, who is for some observers still the most skilled driver in F1, has 32 wins. That total would be far higher had Alonso been given a leading car. The Spaniard has not won a race since taking the checkered flag for Ferrari in May 2013. He has spent this season and last getting the best out of a struggling McLaren adapting to its switch back to a Honda engine.
Clearly, Rosberg needs to improve his speed if he is to be considered among the best.
This year, Hamilton secured 10 wins to Rosberg’s nine and — as Hamilton has consistently repeated — would probably have had a couple more wins without engine problems that cropped up several times. He considers himself to have been the best driver.
“Obviously we had a lot of problems this year, and that’s inevitably why I’m in this position,” Hamilton said as Rosberg sat next to him in Sunday’s post-race news conference.
Although Hamilton’s comments smacked of poor sportsmanship, he does have an argument.
In qualifying, Hamilton took 12 pole positions compared to eight for Rosberg, even though Hamilton was unable to compete in three sessions because of engine woes.
Rosberg, however, could also have got more poles under different circumstances.
He was not pushing Hamilton in qualifying over the last four races because he was more concerned with protecting his considerable lead and playing it safe on race day, where taking second place behind Hamilton was enough.
Still, aside from Singapore, where Rosberg crushed Hamilton in qualifying with a quite stunning lap, he has not been as quick.
After missing out on a third straight F1 title and fourth overall, Hamilton will be hugely motivated next year.
Others will be pushing Rosberg, too, not least Red Bull driver Max Verstappen.
The 19-year-old Dutchman has taken F1 by storm this year — becoming the youngest to both win a race and qualify on the front row.
With rule changes — notably wider tires — expected to make the 2017 cars several seconds quicker, Mercedes might be more strongly challenged.
Verstappen will have more experience and Red Bull will be confident that he can challenge for wins, considering it was the only team other than Mercedes to win a race this season. Vettel has also expressed optimism that Ferrari can close the gap.
Rosberg’s father — 1982 Formula One champion Keke Rosberg — said his son will need to be ready.
“The level is always high in Formula One. Look at Max, he is the teammate of (Daniel) Ricciardo. Or Vettel, he is the teammate of (Kimi) Raikkonen,” Keke Rosberg said. “When you take the top three teams, all of them have been world champions, or at Red Bull they’re all young talents. That’s the level we have.”