x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Nico Rosberg's next step after his big F1 breakthrough

The Mercedes-GP driver's career has been changed by becoming a race winner, writes Gary Meenaghan

Nico Rosberg is looking for a second successive win this weekend in Bahrain.
Nico Rosberg is looking for a second successive win this weekend in Bahrain.

Before last weekend's victory at the Chinese Grand Prix, Nico Rosberg's previous race triumph came in September 2005 in the final event of the inaugural GP2 Series season. The race was held at Bahrain International Circuit.

The German driver, now 26 and racing for Mercedes-GP, secured his first Formula One win in Shanghai in what was his 111th grand prix in his seventh season in motorsport's top tier.

The wait to taste success was so long that Rosberg conceded the race in China felt like a 24-hour endurance event.

Tomorrow, he will line up on the grid in Sakhir once more as the Bahrain Grand Prix takes place.

Rosberg insists nothing has changed and he will prepare for the fourth race of the season in the same way he has prepared for the previous three. Yet drivers who have been there before know that a victory means more than simply standing atop a podium and spraying bubbles: it means expectations, pressure, relief, anticipation.

"It's massive," said Jenson Button, the 2009 world champion who won his first race six years ago with Honda.

"For Nico, it's a little bit different to my first win because when we won back in 2006, we didn't think the next win was going to come for a little while.

"Most of the mechanics, especially the chief mechanic was bawling his eyes out after our race, so it was a different feeling compared to what Nico has now.

"He started on pole, won the race and walked it, really. It's a special feeling for him, but what is even more special is that he probably comes here knowing he can do something similar because they are in a great place right now."

Rosberg knows his Mercedes team are well placed to challenge again throughout the season.

When he was asked earlier this week in Bahrain about emulating the achievement of his father, Keke, and going on to win the world championship with only a single race win under his belt, which his father did in 1982, he laughed off the question. The chance of more race wins will almost certainly come his way - a belief no doubt strengthened by his finishing top of the time sheets in yesterday's second practice for tomorrow's race.

Niki Lauda, who won three world championship titles from 1975 to 1984, told Rosberg in Shanghai that "the first win is by far the most difficult and after that it becomes much easier".

The Wiesbaden-born driver is willing to believe his mentor's words, but Heikki Kovalainen told The National that there is another option.

After his first victory, the Finn said he got a message from Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 commercial rights holder, which said: "Now it's all downhill."

Like Rosberg, Button - who finished second in Shanghai - also had a long wait for his first race win, with his victory in Hungary coming in the Englishman's 113th race.

The two drivers joked about it on the podium, but Button knows the win will affect his racing peer's future. "It does have a big impact on you, mentally, so we'll need to wait and see what direction he takes," he said.

Sir Jackie Stewart, the 72-year-old three-time world champion, had a relatively short wait for his first triumph, winning the 1965 Italian Grand Prix in only his eighth race, but he said even he felt a huge weight removed from his shoulders.

He expects Rosberg's long road to victory to have a positive effect on the driver.

"The problem is that when you go that long without winning one you start to think it's never going to happen," Stewart said.

"But once you find the key to that door, from then on you are relaxed, there is no barrier there. Before there was a barrier; you get uptight.

"When I won my first grand prix - I was lucky mine came early, but nevertheless - I had been second three times that year to Jim Clark and I was thinking 'My God, I'm never going to win.'

"But when you win it, you feel you now know the way to the door and that gives you such confidence."

Mark Webber holds the record for starting the most races before securing a victory.

The Australian competed in 130 grands prix, having made his debut back in 2002 with the Minardi team, before finally winning in Germany in 2009 in his Red Bull Racing car.

He leads Rubens Barrichello, the Brazilian, who had to wait 124 races, the Italian Jarno Trulli who took 117, Button and his 113 and then Rosberg.

Stewart, who worked alongside Rosberg at Williams when the venerable Scot was an ambassador for Williams's sponsors RBS, says there is no reason why the newest driver to be seen atop the F1 podium cannot go on to emulate Button's achievement and win the world title.

"Nico has been a good driver now for so many years," he added. "I saw him up close and personal when he was with Williams and he has always had a huge amount of talent. He has every chance of doing it and it would be terrific if he did because he is such a nice boy, speaks five languages and is very well brought up.

"He is competitive, his team is very good and [the Mercedes team principal] Ross Brawn is one of the men who know how to make it happen. As well as that, Mercedes are now fuelled.

"I was worried that because they weren't getting any success that the board would announce: 'We are not winning races, we shouldn't be here.' They can't say that anymore."

Rosberg's compatriot Sebastian Vettel, the reigning world champion, waited 22 races for his first win, which came in a surprise victory at a rain-hit 2008 Italian Grand Prix when he raced for the Toro Rosso team.

He said other than a sense of release, he felt no different the next time he got in the car.

Every driver in F1, Vettel added, has won races in different series so they know what to expect and do not focus too much on having not triumphed at a grand prix.

"Obviously, it is a big relief and something you don't forget," Vettel said. "In my case, I had my first win in Monza and I was clever enough back then to realise it was something special.

"We were not the most competitive team and it was not natural to win, therefore it was a great feeling and I was just happy to jump in the car and try to do it again.

"Generally, though, even if you do a lot of races and you don't succeed, it's not like you have never won a race. It's not the first win of your life.

"We come from different categories and have won in different cars to get to Formula One. Everyone has won a couple of races before."

Rosberg's last win is fresh in his thoughts as he makes his preparations for tomorrow's race, but he may find further positive energy from memories of the GP2 win that helped secure his seat in F1 for the 2006 season.

Where better to generate confidence this weekend than a place on the grid at the circuit where he not only became the youngest driver to post a fastest lap, but where also he won his last race before his Shanghai surprise?

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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