Why Nico Rosberg is the driver to watch at Mercedes

There is a lot of attention on Mercedes at the moment, and rightly so. They have raised eyebrows by poaching as much technical expertise from other teams as possible, culminating in the hiring of Paddy Lowe. Other recent hirings — Niki Lauda and Toto Wolff — underline the audacity of the Mercedes recruitment drive.

But the biggest name of all to join Mercedes for 2013 is Lewis Hamilton. Lewis Hamilton doesn’t have to try very hard to attract attention. He is, after all, one of the best drivers in the world — and one of the most controversial.

Hamilton’s decision to leave the McLaren team that has mentored him since he was a child has got people talking. Set this against the background of the evolving relationship between McLaren and Mercedes, and the intrigue increases further.

Understandably, Hamilton’s move to Mercedes has caused a great deal of interest. As if it were possible, people will be paying more attention to how he gets on this season with a new, relatively unfancied team.

Nico Rosberg 2010 Malaysia

But for me, how Hamilton gets on is less interesting than what his arrival tells us about his team mate. Nico Rosberg is heading into his eighth season. Yet he has remained something of an enigma. It has always been difficult to gauge just how good he is.

Inconclusive start with Williams

Rosberg’s F1 career started with Williams in 2006. He impressed greatly in his debut race in Bahrain, scoring two points. But overall, Williams struggled to perform that season. It was difficult to tell how much of it was down to the car and how much of it was down to the drivers.

That season, Rosberg’s team mate was Mark Webber. Webber himself was something of an unknown quantity at the time, having largely languished in the midfield with Jaguar and Williams. Both Rosberg and Webber will have changed a lot in the seven years since then. It’s difficult to read anything into Rosberg’s rookie season.

In 2007, Rosberg remained with Williams. This time he was paired with Alexander Wurz. Wurz is a solid driver, but at the time it was a racing comeback for the Austrian, who had spent the previous six seasons as a test driver. Wurz is a competent performer. But given his relative lack of racing experience, he was not such a good barometer to use to judge Rosberg.

For the following two seasons, Rosberg was paired with rookie Kazuki Nakajima. Now Rosberg was clearly the more senior of the Williams drivers. While Rosberg comfortably outperformed Nakajima throughout the two seasons, it clearly said more about Nakajima’s abilities than Rosberg’s.

Midfield with Mercedes

Even once Rosberg had moved to Mercedes, we still struggled to truly suss out just how well Rosberg was performing, because his team mate was Michael Schumacher. Of course, Michael Schumacher’s record is unrivalled. But his comeback is a different matter.

Throughout the three year partnership between Rosberg and Schumacher, the spotlight was on Schumacher. Everyone was talking about how Schumacher was struggling in his comeback. Most people were of the opinion that Schumacher was underperforming.

Not much was ever said about whether Rosberg was outclassing Schumacher. Without a doubt, Rosberg outclassed Schumacher throughout their three years in the same machinery. But the received wisdom is that it’s because Schumacher was rusty, not necessarily because Rosberg was doing a great job.

All the while, Rosberg was racking up the points. He was collecting podiums. He even took a victory. Yet, his actual level of skill remains a matter of debate.

Is Rosberg up there with the likes of Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton? Few would say yes. Yet for three years in a row he has utterly outclassed the most successful Formula 1 driver of all time.

Lucky victory

Even Rosberg’s victory has largely been chalked up as a bit of a lucky one. It came during that notorious period of the 2012 season when seven different drivers won the first seven races, when race wins were seemingly down more to good fortune than anything else.

Rosberg’s victory ranks alongside Pastor Maldonado’s as one of those victories that are seen as somehow less prestigious. It was such an outlier, and Rosberg (and Mercedes) never came close to repeating it.

So there we have it. Rosberg the enigma. Is he good? The statistics say, “probably, yes”. He has almost always outclassed his team mates. But the problem is that he has never truly had a strong team mate. Or at least, his team mates have always been somewhat of an unknown quantity.

That all changes this year.

Make or break

We know exactly how good Lewis Hamilton is. He has shown what he is capable of after many years at a front-running team. Hamilton has proved his worth against today’s best driver, Fernando Alonso. He has continued to hold his own when paired up with Jenson Button.

And unlike Michael Schumacher at Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton is still a driver in the prime of his career, close to the top of his game. Hamilton has many years left in his career, and he is one of the few drivers on the grid that are almost guaranteed to continue being successful.

2013 could be the ultimate make or break year for Nico Rosberg. At last, we can compare him to a strong driver whose abilities are well known. Up until now, Rosberg’s F1 career has been defined by midfield machinery and rusty team mates.

Yes, it will be interesting to see how Lewis Hamilton gets on this year. But the 2013 Mercedes driver lineup is more mouthwatering because finally, after seven years, we could find out what Nico Rosberg is truly capable of.

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