Nico Rosberg may not have had the same outright speed as Lewis Hamilton, but he was stronger in another area, according to a former Williams engineer.
Former Williams chief engineer Sam Michael worked at the Grove-based team between 2001 and 2011 before a move to McLaren, meaning he worked directly with both Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton during his time with the two teams.
Hamilton and Rosberg, who had been childhood friends, would fall out during their time as Mercedes team-mates as they fought over the world titles as the dominant team between 2014-16, with Rosberg abruptly walking away from F1 after clinching the 2016 title.
Having become the modern-day ‘Senna and Prost’ rivalry, with their bitter fight harkening back to the similarly dramatic team-mate war between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost at McLaren in the late 1980s, Michael had first-hand insight into how the two drivers measured up against each other.
How Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton compared as F1 drivers
Appearing on the Beyond the Grid podcast, the Australian revealed that he could see Rosberg’s World Championship-level talent right from his first day at Williams.
“Yeah, yeah, I did. First of all, he was talented, a really good driver,” he said.
“But if I then look at him against Lewis, Lewis was faster by natural talent.
“I never worked with them together in the same team. But the ultimate result is they raced against each other, and Lewis statistically was faster, more times.
“But the huge advantage that Nico had over any driver was he was technically very smart. He was really good at understanding the car, and understanding how the engineering worked, and he used that to his advantage to win the Championship in 2016. I don’t just mean technical.
“A pillar of what defines a great driver – Nico Rosberg, and I’d say also Jenson Button as the smartest drivers that I’ve worked with – they’re technically smart, but also have ability to just do things to their team-mates and get the advantage out of situations that they shouldn’t have got.
“Getting not just the team, but the whole system of Formula 1. So the team, the mechanics, engineers, the stewards, the whole thing around them, both of those drivers are very good at that. It’s probably why they’re good on TV today. I don’t know what Jenson does outside of F1 now, but Nico invests in tech companies. That’s exactly what I thought Nico would do, from a technical point of view.”
With Rosberg announcing his retirement from F1 just two days after winning his World title, Michael was asked whether he was surprised by the fact he chose to walk away having just achieved his dream and followed in his father Keke’s footsteps to become World Champion.
“I didn’t predict it, that’s for sure,” he said.
“But when I reflect on the way he spoke at the press conference straight after the last Grand Prix, then [I wasn’t surprised], because he felt as though he’s accomplished that and he wants to go and do other things.”
Nico Rosberg’s highest score achievement at Williams
As for whether Michael could see Rosberg’s ‘one-and-done’ mentality even as far back as 2006 in his rookie season, Michael said: “I think he was too young to predict that at that time. Nico has got that same thing that Lewis has got where his legacy is really important. You could never get Nico to do something that was underhand, or you couldn’t plan something underhand if you wanted to. I’m not saying that we used to do that, but he was clean. That was a big part of his ethos. He did things properly.
“In his mind, I think he was prepared to not be a World Champion, if it meant doing things properly. He laid that case out very early. It was interesting, actually, because he was one of the young drivers I probably got involved with the most at Williams, I saw him grow, and it was really sad to see him leave Williams. I really needed him there then as well!
“But I actually thought from a non-selfish point of view, if I was just looking after Nico, going to Mercedes was the right thing for him to do.”
While Michael has since left Formula 1, returning to Australia to work in Supercars in 2014, part of his legacy at Williams was refining and developing a technical quiz that drivers coming to Williams have to complete – a quiz that Rosberg achieved the highest score in during Michael’s decade at Grove.
“Nico was highest, but equal highest was Nick Heidfeld,” he said.
“I developed it and really embedded it inside Williams. It was like a 30-question, multiple-choice test, and it ranged from very simple questions around the way cars work to very complex ones. It wasn’t designed as a pass-fail test. It was designed for the engineers at Williams to know what the drivers have a good grasp on. What do they need to be educated on, or work on? We used to give it to them before they would be confirmed as a race driver because Frank [Williams, former team owner and principal] was always wanting to know the results.
“‘Is this person smart enough’? You didn’t necessarily need to do well on that test. There were some fantastic drivers at Williams who were very bad at that test, but it sort of just told you what you needed to work on.”