Nico Rosberg’s reputation seems to divide opinions. On the one hand he was the only driver the consistently beat Schumacher in the same car, and gave Hamilton a far harder time at Mercedes than Valterri Bottas has managed thus far. On the other hand, Schumacher is considered well past his prime by the 2010s, and it must be said that, despite his world championship, Hamilton was the the better of the two Mercedes drivers.
Here, we look at a mathematical analysis of his career to date. Let’s start with his career stats.
Using a complex mathematical model, we can then analyse his yearly performances by removing the effect of the cars he was driving. Let’s have a look at his result across his career, along with some of his teammates:
For context, an average year from Hamilton is given a rating of 100. Whilst it’s pretty clear that Rosberg has quite a high peak, you can also see that he has a large amount of variation across his career, with a minimum and a lower quartile significantly below Schumacher and particularly Hamilton.
Now let’s break down his career into yearly performances:
Rosberg’s teammates seemed to get better with time. It’s also pretty clear from this that Rosberg took a few years to find his groove. This is partly explained by a natural progression due to experience, but Rosberg’s rise in the first few years is more dramatic than most. Other possible explanations are that he was more comfortable in the modern era of non-fuelling (from 2010) or Perelli tyres (from 2011), or that he simply performs better in a competitive car.
Rosberg’s career is also almost unique in that it only went upwards in terms of results too. Most careers in F1 have peaks and troughs, but take a look at his career progress over time:
It’s a near perfect upwards trajectory! The only blip in the trend comes from 2011-2012, where Mercedes were caught out as they temporarily scaled back their financial investment due to a cost cap that never properly materialised. Rosberg scored his first pole and win during this period, so even then his career was arguably on the ascent. Remarkably this trend even continues into the hybrid era, despite the Mercedes car being dominant for the three years of 2014-2016. (If he hadn’t retired and this trend continued, Rosberg would be predicted to win every single race in 2021. :p)
2006, Williams-Cosworth: 64%
2007, Williams-Toyota: 74%
Rosberg demonstrated his talent early on. He s achieved the highest ever score on Williams’s Engineering Aptitude Test (a test they give to new drivers), and scored 2 points along with fastest lap on his debut. This was all the more remarkable considering that his Williams car was not particularly competitive. As the season progress, Mark Webber gained the upper hand in the intra-team battle, but it was clear that Rosberg had talent.
In 2007 Rosberg was paired with Alexander Wurz, a driver who had been competing in F1 on-and-off for the previous decade. Whilst the evidence suggests that Rosberg was still improving, his relative performance effectively ended Wurz’s career. McLaren were interested in hiring Rosberg to partner Lewis Hamilton for 2008, but Williams did not wish to let him go, and he remained at Williams for another couple of years.
Late Williams Years
2008, Williams-Toyota: 75%
2009, Williams-Toyota: 98%
Nakajima only had Rosberg as a teammate in F1, so Rosberg’s level during these years is a little less certain. Nevertheless, he finished third at the opening race in 2008, and achieved a 2nd place at Singapore, despite a drive through penalty and an uncompetitive car.
In 2009 Williams were one of only three teams to exploit a loophole in the regulations to develop a “double-diffuser”, stealing a technical march on the competition. Whilst it could be argued that they were never able to fully capitalise on this, Rosberg delivered relative to Nakajima, and ended the season with 11 points finishes to his teammate’s 0. The model considers this Rosberg’s strongest year. For 2010 he left Williams for Mercedes, the team that had just won the constructors title last year (as Brawn GP).
Battles with Schumacher
2010, Mercedes: 97%
2011, Mercedes: 92%
2012, Mercedes: 97%
When Rosberg signed for Mercedes, he did not know who his teammate would be. The announcement of 7 time world champion Michael Schumacher coming out of retirement was a major shock. To quote Rosberg:
The name Schumacher was not even on the horizon, no-one was even talking about that, and then suddenly Ross [Brawn] calls me and says: ‘By the way, your teammate is not going to be Jenson Button or Nick Heidfeld, it’s going to be Michael Schumacher’. I was like oh my God, [having the] craziest thoughts, that I would have no chance, that the whole team would go against me, that Michael would manipulate his way through.
Despite all the media attention (and initially even the team’s attention) on his illustrious teammate, Rosberg knuckled down and got on with the job, easily out scoring and outracing Schumacher. Whilst this period as a whole is considered Rosberg’s peak, the model accounts for Schumacher’s age and comeback, and Rosberg’s battles with Hamilton suggest that he was consistently delivering at a high level every year since 2008. Mercedes were an upper midfield team during this period, and Rosberg delivered their first pole and win (in modern times), cementing himself as a driver to watch if he ever got a truly competitive car.
Battles with Hamilton
2013, Mercedes: 95%
2014, Mercedes: 88%
By 2013 Mercedes had a genuinely competitive package, although they suffered from excessive tyre wear. Rosberg also had a new challenge in the form of Lewis Hamilton, and whilst Hamilton had the upper hand more often than not, the pair were much closer than many expected. For 2014 Mercedes were dominant, as they would be for several more years. Rosberg raced Hamilton hard, taking the title to the final round, but ultimately fell short. The slight dip in his score relative to the previous years is mostly explained by reliability issues in the final race of the year; a race that counted for double points.
Setbacks and comebacks
2015, Mercedes: 89%
2016, Mercedes: 96%
For much of 2015 Hamilton had the measure of Rosberg, and the title was sewn up with 3 races to go. However, Rosberg ended the season well, winning the last 3 races. Rosberg’s start to 2016 was also strong, and he won every race until a controversial coming together with teammate Hamilton on lap 1 of the Spanish Grand Prix. Subsequently Hamilton generally appeared to have the edge, with Rosberg even letting his title rival through in Monaco to comply with team orders. This gentlemanly gesture was not returned by Hamilton at the end of the year, when he intentionally drove slowly to try to sabotage Rosberg’s race. Ultimately, Rosberg was close to Hamilton’s performance level over the year, and his season was strong enough to net him the title ahead of Hamilton by a narrow margin.
The effort of such a performance took a mental toll on Nico, and he surprisingly quit F1 at the end of the season. Few drivers get to dictate their terms of exit of exit from the sport. Fewer still do so as the reigning world champion. Some may view it as him running away from facing Hamilton again, others will say he went out on a high. Either way, he seems content enough with the outcome.
Hamilton vs Rosberg stats
Lastly, let’s look at how he compared to Hamilton over their 4 years together. The stats support the idea that Rosberg was always a whisker behind, but more than capable of putting Hamilton under pressure. This is still an impressive achievement based on what we know of Hamilton’s abilities. Only Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso were so comparatively close to Hamilton as teammates. Given that they are both world champions, Rosberg’s title is probably as deserved as any.
The evidence suggests that Rosberg was just as fast as Hamilton on raw pace, but suffered in a few specific areas (particularly wet weather driving and wheel-to-wheel racing), meaning he was a less complete racing driver.