A conversation with Nico Rosberg.
„To succeed in sports, you need to be willing to make sacrifices.“
Mr Rosberg, the new Formula 1 season is about to begin. This will be the first time in 12 years that you’re not competing. How does your newfound freedom feel?
I’m not the kind of guy who can lie on a beach for months on end, so I’m already looking for new challenges, new areas in which to compete. The thrill of competition is something you can find away from the racetrack, too – in the world of business, for instance. [Rosberg knocks against his head with his knuckles.] I still find myself doing this. Did I really just say that? Is my name really engraved on the World Championship trophy? [Rosberg points to the trophy on the floor next to him.] Am I really not going to be a part of Formula 1 in 2017? I’ll be watching the races avidly though – from somewhere. And I’ll be keeping my fingers tightly crossed for the Mercedes team. They are my racing family, after all.
„To become World Champion.“
Last year you became Formula 1 Champion and announced your retirement, aged 31, within the space of just four days. You said you no longer wanted to make the sacrifices that racing required of you. But you didn’t give us much more in the way of explanations.
For as long as I can remember, I have been pursuing this one goal: to become World Champion. This was my ultimate dream as a child. There was nothing higher I could achieve. To succeed in sports, you need to be willing to make sacrifices. Everything else has to take a backseat, even family. So I’d see my friends going on skiing holidays together and posting about it on Facebook, and I’d miss out due to training or something. At that level it’s all about total commitment. This mindset enabled me not only to achieve my goals, but has heightened my enjoyment of them. Because getting there involved some really tough moments – moments in which you doubt you can take any more. Now I feel fulfilled and happy.
„I knew one thing for certain: that I never wanted to go through that again. Ever..“
Back in October 2015, in Austin, Texas, a serious driver’s error on your part led to you forfeiting the World Championship title. After the incident, you withdrew from the limelight for several days to mull over what had happened. Today, you see this as a turning point in your career. Why?
Without this defeat, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be sitting here today as World Champion. It was an incredibly difficult time. But as crushing as the defeat was, it inspired an urgency I had never experienced before. I felt levels of motivation I didn’t know were even possible. I knew one thing for certain: that I never wanted to go through that again. Ever. That degree of suffering gives you strength.
You travelled to Japan some time afterwards to spend time with a Zen master.
More importantly, I found someone able to help me on a mental level. I had begun to ask myself what other areas I could develop and improve in. Not just as a racing driver, but as a human being.
„The thoughts came in the middle of the night.“
And you found the answer in psychology?
In meditation primarily. No, meditation is too big a word; some people might associate it with hocus-pocus. What I do is very tangible; it involves concentration and mindfulness exercises. So it’s about focusing on yourself, and becoming aware of your feelings and thoughts in order to improve your powers of concentration.
Some observers say you seemed far away at times on the day of the 2016 finale, as if you had withdrawn into your own world.
My team shielded me from the outside world. That helped me a lot. The final phase of the Championship was as intense as it gets. It was unbelievable. To be so close to my childhood dream and to be up against Lewis again … I had lost the Championship to him in the very last race once before, in 2014.
The thought of losing to him again must have been agonising.
I was having very intensive thoughts, yes. Continually. Were you consumed with thoughts about beating your rival, from the moment you woke up in the morning to the moment you went to sleep at night? No.
In the middle of the night. The thoughts came in the middle of the night. I would wake up, and they were there instantly. That was really hard. But thanks to the help I received, thanks to my mindfulness training, I was able to stay focused and remain in the here and now. I had learned to notice when my thoughts wanted to run away from me in some crazy direction. It’s so easy to lose yourself when that happens, to become overwhelmed by everything. But I knew what to do to keep on track and stay focused on what mattered most. I’m sure this played a major role in helping me make my last race my best race.
„A certain degree of loneliness is part and parcel at this level of competition.“
Was this battle with yourself one of the sacrifices you mentioned earlier?
Well, Formula 1 is a team sport and people I knew and trusted always surrounded me. My family was constantly at my side. I had amazing support whenever I needed it.
But when your thoughts start to run away with you, there is no one who can help. Is loneliness the price elite athletes have to pay for success?
Yes, absolutely. A certain degree of loneliness is part and parcel at this level of competition. But it also gives you a sense of focus without which you would not succeed.
„Trust essential in these circumstances.“
Have you ever felt that the price of success was too high, that it changes you too much?
No, I’ve never felt that way. I’ve always been too ambitious, too competitive in striving for my goals.
In this magazine issue we show photographs taken by Paul Ripke, the photographer who accompanied you during your World Championship year. They include some unusual images – for example, the picture where you are leaning on your dad, Keke. You seem to feel no one is watching. Stars don’t often present themselves in a vulnerable light in public. They normally want these aspects to be shielded, to not show any weak points.
Trust in the photographer is essential in these circumstances. And I had great trust in Paul. Of course, we always go through the pictures together and decide jointly on which ones to release. But I don’t feel this need to protect myself. Those photos show who I am, and I’m proud of what they convey.
„The first time I felt joy was when I heard Vivian, my wife, speaking to me over the radio.“
Have you read Open, tennis player Andre Agassi’s autobiography?
Yes, I have. It’s a while ago, though. It’s a great book.
Do you remember what Agassi did when, in Palermo, he heard he had become world number one, he had fulfilled his childhood dream?
No. He was really happy, I guess.
He walked through the streets of Palermo and felt simply empty.
It wasn’t like that at all for me. I cried when I finally crossed the finish line in Abu Dhabi.
Agassi asked himself why he should keep going if it only resulted in emptiness, and if satisfaction was an impossible dream. He asked what else there could possibly be. You’ve protected yourself from this feeling by retiring.
My feelings upon winning were entirely different, although I admit I hadn’t thought about retiring at that point. On crossing the finish line, I felt pure relief. The final circuits had been so intense, so nerve-racking. The first time I felt joy was when I heard Vivian, my wife, speaking to me over the radio. It was such a personal moment, as if we were having a morning chat with each other in the bedroom. And all my tension just fell away.
„You can’t keep it up forever.“
For how long can a top athlete maintain that level of focus?
You can’t keep it up forever. That’s just not possible. In all major individual sports, you always have people who dominate for a while, but whose dominance starts to diminish at some point. This is what Novak Djokovic is currently experiencing in tennis. I met him quite recently on the beach in Monaco. He was doing his yoga routine. I went down and said hi. Before that, we had only ever met each other at the Laureus World Sports Awards. But we’ve kept in touch since. Our kids are the same age and we both live in Monaco. He is totally committed to his sport. We chatted about how incredibly tough that is.
„Michael Schumacher managed it.“
Can you think of any sportsmen or women who have managed to withstand that intensity for longer periods?
There are very, very few. I can only think of Michael Schumacher. He managed. He gave his all so relentlessly. Always taking things a step further. But he is pretty unique in that sense.
Can those who become world champions in football, boxing or Formula 1 also be nice people?
Of course. Why wouldn’t they be?
A German European Cup champion once said to me: “Don’t expect us to be nice people. Since we were small, we have been drilled to always show grit, to crush our competitors, to think only of ourselves. We are killers.” Is he right?
You can be friendly and respectful to others and still strive for and enjoy success. So, no, he’s not right.
„The feeling of elation you get standing up there on the podium – there’s nothing like it.“
What was the best thing about Formula 1 for you?
Whenever I managed to beat all the others. That’s what it’s all about after all. The feeling of elation you get standing up there on the podium – there’s nothing like it.
A lot of top athletes don’t seem to have a propensity for happiness.
I can relate to that. I’ve often felt that way. After a race is always before a race. You’re always chasing victory, always expected to deliver more. It’s exhausting and yet normal.
In your case, there was no next race after your triumph. Directly after your announcement, your management released a film showing you as a young boy driving a go-kart. Standing shirtless at the side of the track is your father, Keke Rosberg, himself the 1982 Formula 1 World Champion. He is watching his son with pride.
Seeing those images was incredibly emotional for me. I had never seen the film before. My dad had found it and gave it to my people, who reworked it without me knowing. It shows day one of my journey, a journey that came to a close in Abu Dhabi. I’ve now achieved the same feat as my dad; this is something we can share. And that’s just wonderful.
„I’m grateful to my parents, to my family.“
At the beginning of your career you were constantly being compared with your father.
Yes, it’s always been that way. It was never a bad thing, though – it just got a bit annoying. Now I feel happy about being compared to him.
Yes, because I’m grateful to my parents, to my family. My dad has always strongly supported my career; he helped open doors for me all the way up to Formula 1. As soon as I broke into Formula 1, he withdrew.
Of his own accord?
Well, we discussed it; then he decided to pull back. This is one of the reasons why I’m sitting here as World Champion. He managed to let go at the right moment. I’m sure that’s a really tough thing to do for a dad.
„Letting go will be one of the most difficult things.“
You are now a father yourself; your daughter is one-and-a-half years old.
Oh yes, and I can already sense that letting go will be one of the most difficult things I’ll ever have to do. So I can appreciate what my dad did for me back then. And I intend to manage it myself when the day comes. I have to say, though, that my dad doesn’t keep himself to himself entirely. He recently wrote to tell me not to forget to gradually reduce my training regime.
And how did you respond?
I told him I didn’t need to. I’ll carry on running and cycling. I’ll keep my fitness level up, and continue my programme with my trainer. See those cookies on the table? I won’t touch them. I’m not even tempted. My lifestyle feels right, so I’ll continue to maintain it.
„I make the effort to look smart. I put on a posh jacket, make sure I look stylish.“
At least you’ll have more time to take your blue Mercedes 280 SL Pagode out for jaunts around the South of France.
The coast here boasts the most amazing drives in the world. But my car is no vehicle for everyday. I want it to retain its specialness.
Is it true that you get specially dressed before getting in?
It is indeed. I make the effort to look smart. I put on a posh jacket, make sure I look stylish. It is an old-timer – you need to treat it well or it will lose its lustre.