For 20 years, Nico Rosberg’s life was dictated by the racing calendar. Two decades of raw adrenaline: driving at pulsating speeds, inches from an unforgiving metal crash barrier; spraying champagne from the top step of the podium into an adoring crowd below; and seriously lucrative, life-changing contracts. But it also required gritty dedication and personal sacrifice. Life on the road from the end of March through to late November; long periods estranged from friends and family; wave after wave of press conferences and ambassadorial commitments – the demands on a Formula One driver are heavy. Today, however, he couldn’t be further from this drama.
I meet Nico in Monaco, in the office designed by his wife Vivian, a stone’s throw from the clear waters of the Ligurian Sea. Sitting across a boardroom table, with a photo of his Mercedes race car on the wall behind him, Nico has swapped his overalls for a perfectly tailored navy suit and freshly pressed white shirt. He looks every inch the entrepreneur. He is incredibly calm, content, happy. Much of it is down to the birth of his second daughter, Naila, just days before my visit – the mere mention of her name brings a huge, loving grin to his face, as if it hasn’t quite sunk in yet – but it also derives from the new direction his life and ambitions have taken since his shock announcement in December 2016 to retire from Formula One, five days after winning his maiden World Championship title.
His announcement was called brave, rash, admirable and bizarre. For Nico, however, the decision was simple.
“A lot of it was the positives in other parts of my life,” he explains, “like my family, my private life and my passions outside of Formula One. And the other part was that, for me to win the title, the intensity that I had to apply to it was really out of this world. Which is great, it’s fine, but it’s not something I wanted to go on doing forever, because it’s full-on. I dedicated my life to it, completely – everything else was secondary. It was incredibly intense.”
And it was never more intense than the 2016 season, as Nico was locked in a fierce on-and-off-track rivalry with his Mercedes teammate and three-times World Champion Lewis Hamilton. Their partnership was the story the press has been baying for: two childhood friends and go-karting contemporaries going head-to-head at the pinnacle of racing, with Nico pitted as a real challenger to Hamilton – who, despite being arguably the best driver the sport has had since Ayrton Senna, had a reputation for falling out with those in the same garage as him. In an otherwise predictable season, the world’s media had the hook on which to hang its conjecture. And they didn’t have to wait very long.
“It was on the edge,” Nico says. “But how can it not be? You’re in the same car, it’s only you two fighting for the championship. Taking your competition all the way, sometimes into the grey area, is all part of it. That’s something that Lewis did very well – he’d go into those grey areas without overstepping the mark. That was much more difficult for me to do.”
Their rivalry boiled down to the final lap of the final race at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, as Hamilton attempted to back Nico into the lurking threat of the chasing Ferrari and Red Bull. The Brit’s attempts were in vain. Nico remained level-headed and emerged the worthy champion, beating Hamilton by five points in the overall standings. As he stood on the podium, arms punching the air, little did the millions of people watching around the world know that he was planning to leave the sport imminently.
“The thought to leave came when I was leading the Championship with four races to go,” he explains. “I had such a big lead, and it was really in my hands. All I had to do [to win] was finish second, second, second, third – or something like that – and the decision came to me instinctively: ‘If I win now, it will be perfect for me to call it a day.’
“In fact, a couple of months before that, in the summer, I had signed a new deal with Mercedes for another two years. And it was a big one, too – there was quite a few zeros on that one.”
"For me to win the title, the intensity that I had to apply to it was really out of this world..."
It takes a man of stern stuff to walk away from a hefty multi-million-pound contract (reported to be in the region of £18 million a year), with a seat in the fastest car on the grid and a decent shot at taking a second title. But this didn’t factor into the equation for Nico. Winning the Championship meant more than money and fame.
“I was a guy on a mission,” he says, leaning forward onto the table, “and I’d been on that mission for 20 years. I would have kept going for another 10 years if I’d had to. That was my mission, my childhood dream: to become the Formula One World Champion. So once the mission was complete, I could move on to other things. It’s a great feeling to end on a high. Because I now have positive memories going forward into my next steps.
“My first priority was to take more time for my family, but at the same time I started pushing to find new direction and new challenges.”
While it’s hard to not admire Nico’s ambition and pluck in leaving the world of racing in his prime, and with so much money on the table, it’s equally as hard not to be jealous of him. He is young, just 32 years old; successful, handsome, rich and enterprising. He’s also acutely attentive.
Three weeks earlier, on set for the photoshoot at The Hari on Pont Street in London, he was absorbed in the occasion, showcasing a genuine interest not often seen from ‘the talent’. He’d personally looked over the creative and styling moodboards before arrival and had a few queries on elements he was keen to alter, and as the crew started shooting, Nico asked for the photographer’s laptop to be angled towards him so that he could see the live stream of images popping up on the screen. When unsure, he sought direction. And with the shoot wrapped, despite having back-to-back appointments to move on to and a flight to Monaco to catch that evening, he stayed an extra half-hour to run through the selects.
To some this might seem like an insecurity, or indeed vanity. To Nico, it is the unwavering drive for perfectionism in everything he does; an ‘if you’re going to do it, do it to your best ability’ mentality.
While Nico has lived in Monaco for his whole life, he still has clear German traits. His answers are concise and to the point, never straying off-topic into tenuous anecdote – as with everything he puts his mind to, there is an air of absolute control and efficiency. It’s hard to imagine Nico ever gets flustered. Perhaps, then, given the way he is wired, the world of technology and business is the perfect ring for him to step into next.
Considering the success that Nico has already achieved, and with two young daughters, he’d be forgiven for taking the easy road: the life of an influencer, professional socialite and occasional TV presenter. He has the credentials – he is a walking brand: 2.2 million-plus Twitter followers, 1.1 million on Instagram, and a YouTube channel clocking up views by the hundreds of thousands. But he has no intention of slowing down or taking the easy route. Quite the opposite, in fact – Nico is getting back to business.
He has recently returned from a trip to Silicon Valley, surrounding himself with the right sort of people to help him determine his next career move.
“I’ve always been passionate about meeting clever people and exchanging ideas with them,” says Nico enthusiastically. “The kind of people who are going to change the world. Those are the people you find when you go to Silicon Valley. The density of intelligence there is just ridiculous.
“I’ve always loved cars, and in the car domain there are huge changes coming: going to electric; autonomous driving, which is going to save lives and the planet – it has huge implications. It’s an extremely exciting period. I’m keen to get involved with start-ups, too, but I’m still in the exploration phase. It’s a massive life-changing decision, and it’s going to take time to see what I like best. So I’m exploring, trying things, having fun. I’m just putting myself out there, speaking to people and listening to what they have to say.
“And then there’s the investment angle to it. I have great savings now from my career which I need to do something with. There’s competition in that for me – to make the most of my savings.”
"Taking your competition all the way, sometimes into the grey area, is all part of it..."
A competitive edge is something that Nico often refers to, whether looking back over his career in racing or his future in business – “deals, contracts… I will always be competitive and I’ll always want to win”. His 206-race, decade-long career in Formula One, the longest run by any driver before winning a Championship, second only to Nigel Mansell, has provided him with an invaluable taste of remaining dogged in the face of adversity.
“There were so many difficult periods,” he says, “so many setbacks and defeats over those 10 years. It was not easy.” He also acknowledges the similarities between life in the driving seat and time in the office. “In racing, the risks are all very calculated. And that’s the same in business – you have to go out there and take risks, because without risks you’re never going to achieve anything. And you need to be prepared to fail as well. But it’s always calculated risks.
“You also need to surround yourself with great people. Alone, you cannot achieve anything.”
Formula One fans will welcome the news that Nico is still involved in the sport – not as a driver, but as a mentor to Robert Kubica, the Pole tipped for greatness until a horrific crash in a low-key rally in Italy in 2011 left him badly injured and in need of reconstructive surgery to save the use of his right hand.
“It’s really exciting to be working with him,” he says, “because when I was 12 and I first started racing, Lewis and Kubica were the only two guys who I really struggled to beat. I really believe in him.”
As far as a return to the cockpit goes, Nico is quick to put the brakes on any rumours or lingering hope that he is planning a second hurrah. “I really enjoy watching it but I’m good the way it is. I don’t have any regrets or second thoughts at all, but I watch it and think it’s awesome. I don’t think my body has realised that I’m not on the grid anymore though, as when the race lights come on my adrenaline still spikes, even just sitting on the sofa at home.
“I’m the boss of my time now,” he continues. “That’s the difference in my new life. If tomorrow I wake up and decide I’d rather spend the day with my children in the playground I can do that, whereas for the last 20 years it’s been the racing calendar dictating my life, from the start of the year to the end of the year. And it was a very hectic schedule and lifestyle. The problem is that I’m an addictive person, so I have to fight with myself to stop or slow down. It’s something I’ve learned and I do pay attention to it. I’m aware of it. But it’s not easy. I want to be the best, to have success and great achievements.”
The next stop for Nico is China, to once again spend time with the world’s most innovative and intelligent people – “It’s so-called ‘networking’” – and then onto wherever he feels he can learn and source inspiration to be part of the exciting development in future sustainability and advanced mobility. Success in this area of business is Nico’s new agenda. His new mission. And, given how passionately he pursued his last mission, the smart money is on him to make it.
Nico Rosberg is an IWC Ambassador, and wore an IWC Big Pilot’s Spitfire for his exclusive photoshoot with Gentleman’s Journal.