This post started off as a teaching aid for First Year Psychology undergrads about preparing clean graphs in Excel but quickly morphed into a diatribe on the negative perception of Nico Rosberg as the 2016 Formula One World Champion.
WARNING: This article contains opinions supported by numbers and facts. Trolls, beware.
Nico Rosberg is your newly crowned 2016 Formula One World Champion. The German, who recently retired from F1, has racked up some impressive records during his stint with the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team. At the start of the current campaign he became only the fourth driver in the history of the sport to win the opening four races of a season, following in the footsteps of Senna, Mansell and Schumacher. Rosberg won the inaugural FIA Pole Position Trophy for recording the most number of pole positions in 2014. His maiden race victory at the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix was Mercedes’ first win since Juan Manuel Fangio’s triumph over 50 years prior.
However, in spite of these accomplishments, you would be forgiven for thinking that we are living in the era of Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton was brought into Mercedes in 2013 as the marquee signing, a World Champion set to lead the team alongside the incumbent Rosberg. In the three years since, Hamilton has delivered in style, adding two World Titles to his tally and bringing Mercedes success in the Constructors’ Championships, a feat not witnessed since 1955. But it is the Brit’s star power, both on and off the track that has added to the lore of “Hammer Time”. F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone famously referred to the Mercedes driver as “box office, 100 per cent” while Hamilton’s boss, Toto Wolff described Lewis as “a rock star racing driver” who “does not only deliver in a car, he delivers for the brand in his life outside the track.”
It would be hard to argue against the fact that Hamilton is seen by many as the de facto No. 1 at Mercedes. Put another way, Nico Rosberg is the perfect foil to his more esteemed teammate – a solid racer destined to play a supporting role. There is nothing wrong in supporting a winning cause. After all, there can really only be one face of success. But the narrative of Rosberg as the No. 2 driver, perpetuated explicitly or implicitly, can be dangerous. To explain away Nico’s Championship triumph as an artefact of luck, as his harshest critics do, on account of reliability issues experienced by his teammate, is to discredit the German’s talent, consistency and mental toughness seen throughout the 2016 season.
Being labelled as No. 2 by media and fans doesn’t just imply that a driver was less successful than his teammate. Rather it suggests that that driver was significantly outperformed while not fully utilising the true potential of the car they were driving. It is not uncommon for such a division in status to exist between drivers, particularly in dominant F1 teams. Since the turn of the century, two other racing outfits have stamped their authority on the sport. Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello led Ferrari to five Constructors’ Championships from 2000 to 2004. More recently, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber secured four Constructors’ Titles for Red Bull Racing between 2010 and 2013. However, in both these cases, there was a clearly established hierarchy of drivers within the teams defined by one-sided results and, in certain instances, decisions by management. Schumacher is synonymous with Ferrari just as Vettel is with Red Bull and both will always be remembered as the lead drivers of their respective teams.
So if we truly are to make the argument stick that Nico Rosberg is the No. 2 at Mercedes, we must compare his results against those of Barrichello and Webber. To do so, however, is not to classify the latter two drivers as lesser racers but to instead use them as a baseline for assessment. There are similarities across these three drivers which makes such a comparison relevant. All three drivers are members of teams that dominated F1, classified here as winning three or more Constructors’ Titles on the trot post 2000. That is to say, while it is nearly impossible to compare the level of technical dominance between Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes, it should be clear that these teams were far superior to the rest of their respective competitors. Furthermore, Rosberg, Webber and Barrichello all had similar levels of experience, having raced in F1 for seven years previously before joining forces with their eventual Championship-winning teammates.
In the sections below, we will evaluate Rosberg, Webber and Barrichello on individual parameters (Drivers’ Championship Standings, pole positions and race wins) as well as contributions to their teams (share of Constructors’ points, 1-2s secured). In Rosberg’s case we will provide an additional contrast, excluding his data from 2016, to provide a comparison that is not potentially skewed by his Championship success. If it is the case that all three drivers in question played a secondary role within their teams, we would expect to see a similar trend in their results across all five measurements of performance.
Drivers’ Championship Standings
The most obvious place to begin, counterintuitively, is at the end of the season. Teammates driving the fastest cars on the grid should, in theory, be locking out the top two positions of the Drivers’ Standings irrespective of the order in which they finish. Table 1 collates the end-of-season positions for Rosberg, Webber and Barrichello.
Table 1: End-of-season Drivers’ Standings for Rosberg, Webber and Barrichello in the years
when their respective teams won the Constructors’ Championship.
In the five years of Ferrari dominance, Barrichello came second overall on two occasions while Webber only managed a highest of third at Red Bull. Rosberg though, as one would expect, has two second places and a World Title to his name, highlighting a consistency one would expect of someone driving for a Championship-winning team.
Qualifying results serve as a litmus test of outright speed under time pressure. In this regard, Rosberg not only comfortably has the measure of Webber and Barrichello (see Figure 1) but also comes close to matching Hamilton (see Figure 2).
Figure 1: Average percentage of pole positions per season secured by Barrichello
(12.9%), Webber (15.66%) and Rosberg (47.38%, 2014-2015; 44.28%, 2014-2016).
The latter might come as a surprise to some given how much is made of Hamilton’s raw pace. Taken in context though, the numbers reinforce the difference in requirements over a race weekend. Hamilton and Rosberg might share the spoils on a Saturday but the Brit has a better pole-to-win conversion rate than his teammate. What remains without doubt is Rosberg’s phenomenal ability to string a hot lap together going back to his partnership with fellow German, Michael Schumacher. Rosberg out-qualified Schumacher on 41 out of 58 occasions that they were teammates at Mercedes from 2010 to 2012. Indeed, Rosberg is the only one out of 10 teammates to out-qualify the most decorated F1 driver in history, albeit after Schumacher came out of a three-year sabbatical.
Figure 2: Average percentage of pole positions per season secured by teammates -
Schumacher (46.9%) v. Barrichello (12.9%), Vettel (52.25%) v. Webber (15.66%)
and Hamilton (47.37%, 2014-2015; 50.63%, 2014- 2016) v. Rosberg (47.38%, 2014-
2015; 44.28%, 2014-2016).
At the end of a race weekend, it is the win and not the pole position that matters. Even here, Nico Rosberg has a greater win percentage record by a factor of three compared with Webber and Barrichello (see Figure 3). Decisively, Rosberg’s lowest win percentage in a season (26.32%, 2014) is still better than that the highest win percentages for Webber (21.06%, 2010) and Barrichello (23.53%, 2002). Winning over a third of the races in a calendar season makes a strong case against the notion that Nico Rosberg has merely been the No. 2 driver at Mercedes.
Figure 3: Average percentage of race wins per season secured by Barrichello
(10.61%), Webber (9.08%) and Rosberg (28.95%, 2014-2015; 33.59%,
Contributions to the team
Arguably, the best measure of driver status within a team is the points contributed towards the Constructors’ tally. Over the three years of Mercedes success, Nico Rosberg has contributed to 47.12% of the team’s points (see Figure 4). In contrast, Webber and Barrichello offer a noticeably smaller contribution to their team’s points score. This synergy in performance between teammates is further highlighted by the number on 1-2 finishes in a season, which Mercedes dominate over their Red Bull and Ferrari counterparts (see Figure 5). In other words, Nico Rosberg has shared the responsibility of bringing the Constructors’ title to Mercedes with Lewis Hamilton. These are indicators of a driver that is neither being significantly outperformed by his teammate nor failing to maximise the potential of the car he is driving.
Figure 4: Average percentage of points per season contributed by teammates to Constructors’
Championship - Schumacher (62.54%) v. Barrichello (37.46%), Vettel (59.85%) v. Webber (40.15%)
and Hamilton (54.48%, 2014-2015; 52.88%, 2014-2016) v. Rosberg (45.52%, 2014-2015; 47.12%,
Figure 5: Average percentage of 1-2 finishes per season – Ferrari (26.54%),
Red Bull (15.72) and Mercedes (60.53, 2014-2015; 53.05, 2014-2016).
Rosberg: A deserving World Champion?
The statistics indicate that Nico Rosberg’s performance with Mercedes has not been one of a No. 2 driver. On all measurement accounts, Rosberg emphatically surpasses the yardstick set by Rubens Barrichello and Mark Webber. To some, such an analysis may appear to be redundant. But it is indeed necessary, although unfortunate, that such groundwork must be laid before a discussion regarding the legitimacy of Rosberg’s Championship win can even begin. The primary question being put forward by sections of fans and the media is this: Is Nico Rosberg a deserving World Champion given the reliability woes Lewis Hamilton suffered over the course of the season? But herein lies two very different questions. Would Lewis Hamilton have won the World Championship with fewer engine issues? We can speculate but we will never know for certain. Is Nico Rosberg a deserving World Champion? Absolutely.
Let us look at the first question with the benefit of history. When Hamilton won his first World Championship in 2008, he was embroiled in a fierce battle with Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. In that season, Massa would go on to secure more race wins and yet suffer more engine failures than his championship rival. In race 15 out of 18 at the Singapore Grand Prix, Massa cruelly lost out on scoring any points despite leading the race after a failure of the automatic fuel-release sensor put paid to his efforts. In the final race at Brazil, Massa took the race victory but Hamilton managed a fifth place finish, the bare minimum he needed to scrap through and take the championship by a point. And yet, the overarching theme of that year was the celebration of Lewis Hamilton’s maiden triumph and deep commiserations to Felipe Massa on what might have been. Lest we forget, even after a season like 2008, very little was brought to the fore to question Hamilton’s worth or legitimacy as a champion.
Switching our attention back to the 2016 season and Rosberg, it is evident that the German has epitomised consistency and mental toughness throughout the season. It is consistency that has seen him qualify on the top row for each of the 21 race this season to maximise his chances of scoring race wins and points. And it is with consistency that he has been able to capitalise on potential points dropped by his teammate and main rival. Consistency, especially at an elite level, may not be glamorous but it is something to be celebrated, not dismissed. In F1, we often hear the saying “to finish first, you must first finish.” Even in other sports like cricket, the bowling mantra of “if you miss, I’ll hit” implies bowlers will be rewarded for consistently bowling stump-to-stump to exploit a situation where the batsmen swings and misses. Rosberg’s success underlines the point that luck without skill and consistent application is inconsequential.
An aspect that often gets overlooked when discussing the Championship battle is the psychological toll of competing against your teammate. It is harder to rationalise away a loss to a teammate because both drivers share the same machinery, strategists and even telemetry. Factor in the constant media spotlight, expectation and high stakes that come with driving the two fastest cars on the grid and it is no surprise that you typically end up with a situation where one driver regularly has the measure of the other. Before the start of the 2016 campaign, Rosberg had had two very strong seasons with Mercedes and still lost out to Hamilton. With this as context, there are three phases in 2016 that cement Rosberg’s legacy as a deserving champion. Phase 1, the German took the fight to Hamilton by winning the first four races of the season. Phase 2, Rosberg saw a 43-point lead turned into a 19-point deficit with less than half the season to go. Rather than accepting the inevitable, Rosberg re-asserted a 33-point lead over the course of the next five races. Phase 3, Rosberg clinched two crucial second place finishes in the final two races of the season, one in treacherously wet conditions at Brazil and the other under immense pressure at Abu Dhabi when Hamilton backed him into the path of Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen. To be able to successfully negotiate one’s perceived limitations of driving in the wet (Brazil) and performing clean overtakes (Max Verstappen, Abu Dhabi) in title-deciding races while going up against a multiple World Champion teammate in top form should be a resounding endorsement of Nico Rosberg’s credibility and mental fortitude.
No one can dispute that Lewis Hamilton has had a more successful career than his former teammate. But, as the numbers demonstrate, Nico Rosberg is no Number 2. And he is certainly a deserving 2016 F1 World Champion.