And then, stunning most of us – but not Hamilton, apparently – Rosberg took his crown and walked off into the sunset…
More than anything, the 2016 Formula One World Championship was not so much a belting, bruising battlefield between 22 drivers and cars but a quite personal duel between two Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows drivers with only sporadic involvement from others.
From the first race in Melbourne, the signs were strong that Nico Rosberg and defending champion Lewis Hamilton - childhood karting mates who became rancorous F1 rivals - would be the main (and most likely the only genuine) title protagonists.
And looking back at the 21-race season, that’s the way it rolled, with the only intrusions into what was a Mercedes-Benz romp being Max Verstappen’s victory in Spain and Daniel Ricciardo’s triumph in Malaysia.
Rosberg started 2016 the way he finished the previous campaign, with fresh resolve and a stunning early sequence of four grand prix wins.
Issues with his car’s hybrid system had Hamilton starting down the grid in the grands prix of China and Russia, where he finished seventh and second respectively.
Hamilton fought back brilliantly to land his first win of 2016, in Monaco, while Rosberg struggled to seventh. This started a stunning period for Hamilton, who scored six wins from seven races, to kick start his championship bid.
But he had to deal with repercussions from needing replacement parts early in the year which led to the Briton getting a grid penalty and a start at the back in the Belgian GP.
Third was nevertheless a great fightback result in a race won by Rosberg, who then went on to land 25 pointers in Italy and Singapore.
Bad luck struck Hamilton at Sepang in September, when his engine blew while he was leading the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Hamilton’s non finish meant that instead of holding a small points lead over Rosberg with five races remaining, he faced a 23-point deficit. This blew out to 33 points when he finished third to a rampant Rosberg after a woeful start at Suzuka.
With four rounds remaining, Rosberg didn’t even need another win to take his maiden title.
Hamilton didn’t throw in the towel though. He worked harder – way harder – on his Achilles heel, his starts.
He then reeled off three impressive wins while Rosberg followed the conservative option, on each occasion taking second place.
Hamilton did all he could, taking pole and controlling the race throughout, but also using questionable - some said dirty - tactics to try to back Rosberg into the clutches of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull’s Verstappen. He repeatedly defied calls from his Mercedes team to speed up.
Hamilton’s refusal to follow orders produced a dramatic denouncement for spectators and TV viewers with the outcome in doubt until the final corner. But Mercedes executives were dismayed with their British driver’s unsporting behaviour and probably felt that seeing they were paying him maybe $30 million a year perhaps he should do what was asked of him.
His relief palpable, Rosberg, winner of the world championship by a margin of five points, described the race as the toughest of his life.
There was criticism of Hamilton from many quarters, but also some support, principally from the English media.
Rosberg cut his rival some slack: “It’s about the world championship so you can understand that he wanted to try whatever it was possible to do.”
Ever the unsporting loser, Hamilton was quick to present his season in a favourable light, suggesting that car failures were the reason he lost the championship. "I was generally quickest most of the year, so it's definitely been a positive, a lot of positives to take from it," Hamilton said.
Verstappen probably provided a more impartial assessment. "Of course Lewis had some bad luck, but Nico has had some very strong races, too,” commented the Red Bull racer. “That is racing. It is a mechanical sport, and these things can happen. This year, definitely compared to last year, Nico really stepped up and he has some great results.”
Kimi Raikkonen was another who found himself defending Rosberg against claims the new champ was lucky.
It may be argued that Hamilton is the faster, more natural driver than Rosberg over one lap, but the Briton makes more mistakes. He has turned plenty of Pirellis into octagons.
Rosberg, who won nine GPs to Hamilton’s 10, tended to handle on-track problems more analytically and with greater calm. He followed direction from the pit wall.
During his title-winning season too, he refused to buckle to the mounting pressure, taking on a toughness lacking back when he attracted the unflattering sobriquet “Nicole”.
Eight poles suggest Rosberg was also quick enough.
We should remember too, the brilliant overtake on Verstappen in the decider, which he needed to make to keep second place. “[Verstappen] went full-on aggressive of course, he didn't given an inch, as usual but fair play, we didn't collide and I got by, so that felt amazingly good. It was an awesome feeling at the time, really, very relieving and so intense, unbelievably intense really, in the car. I've never felt something like that in the car before.”
A huge asset of Rosberg’s was his detailed analysis of his car’s behaviour and feedback, which his engineers insisted was probably the best in F1.
While Hamilton, replete with body graffiti and the swagger and fashion sense of a Baltimore pimp, appears to be doing his best to promote Brand Lewis, disciplined family man Rosberg’s priorities have been easier to understand, and laud.
Sponsors and TV interviewers loved him.
Fluent in six languages, Rosberg tends to be measured in what he says. He would never embarrass his employer or sponsors.
He complimented Hamilton unreservedly too, saying "I've got great respect for him because he does an incredible job”.
“It feels like I've been racing him for ever and always he's just managed to edge me out and get the title even when we were small in go-karts.
“And he's just an amazing driver and of course one of the best in history so it's unbelievably special to beat him because the level is so high and that makes this even more... for sure, so much more satisfying for me…
“… and I took the world championship away from him which is a phenomenal feeling.
“It's been a great year as well, for sure he drove at an extremely high level, he's done some incredible racing so he's been a very, very tough competitor.”
And what about our boy Dan…?
After finishing third in the 2016 world championship, Ricciardo reflected positively on his year: “Overall I’m super happy and very pleased with the year. It’s definitely been more highs than lows this year with a lot of podiums, satisfying races and a good chunk of points. I got amongst it when I could, so I think it was a good 2016 for sure.”
Five days after his championship victory, Rosberg dropped his bombshell, announcing he was retiring, effective immediately. He simply did not wish to put himself and his family through another championship campaign as stressful as the last.
Job done. Danke.
The decision rocked Mercedes to the core. But not Hamilton. He said he wasn’t surprised.
The 2016 season also marked the retirement of two of the more likeable drivers in F1.
Felipe Massa’s career will be remembered by his 11 GP wins and his gutsy comeback from a life-threatening injury, but also for the heart-wrenching conclusion to the 2008 season when he was world champion for 20 seconds.
World champion in 2009 in a Brawn, Jenson Button may have left F1 for good. Or not. “I’m taking a sabbatical, that’s what it says in the contract,” he says. “I’ve got the opportunity to race in 2018, but the reason I wanted to retire in the first place is that I didn’t want to race [an F1 car] next year… but I’ve got the nice option if I do.”
Button says he’ll be going testing, definitely tackling some rallycross, and maybe looking at Super GT in Japan and Le Mans.
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