Why An F1 Champion Thinks Formula E Is the Future
After retiring from Formula 1 at the end of 2016, Nico Rosberg has no plans to return to racing, but he’s put his own money where his mouth is by becoming an investor in Formula E – a series he truly believes in.
It was all serene until he got to Turn 1. Nico Rosberg, back behind the wheel of a single-seater, charged towards the first corner of Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport in Formula E’s Gen2 demonstration car. He’d driven it around Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate, but this was different – this was his natural environment.
The Gen2 car, more grey-scale in the carbonfibre flesh than in FE’s initial announcement renders, sliced through the air and shot towards the long, looping left-hander of Turn 1. Then Rosberg hit the brakes and realised just what he’d let himself in for.
Apex missed, arms crossed, fighting for control – he barely made the corner. “Woah, woo, woah – that was a bit exaggerated, got to take it a bit easy,” came the reaction.
There’s a good reason why Rosberg was chosen to give FE’s new baby its first public outing. He’s an investor in the championship and a friend of series CEO and founder Alejandro Agag.
“I’ve believed in this for a long time, so I joined as an investor quite a while ago,” he explains. “I’m very pleased with the direction it’s going, because it’s going straight up! So, Berlin was a perfect opportunity to join forces to try to promote the sport a little bit in my home country and to showcase the Gen2 car, which is a very strong message as well: the first car to do the whole distance with a battery. [It] shows the technical evolution.”
Since he walked away from Formula 1 at the end of 2016, fresh from the sweet but exhausting title victory he had scored over Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton, Rosberg hasn’t exactly kept a low profile, but nor has he gone on the offensive as much as he might have done.
“I know someone who was quite happy with that” is as close as he comes to discussing Hamilton, suggesting only that the four-time world champion was happier to have less competition at the front of the F1 field than he has claimed in recent years as Ferrari and Red Bull closed the gap to the Silver Arrows.
But Rosberg has been establishing himself away from the F1 spotlight – even if, thanks to his media gigs and online presence, he has stayed near enough to its glow. He’s a Rolex ambassador, formed his own karting squad, enjoys his family life, and also toured Silicon Valley to evaluate new possibilities in technology.
Many sporting stars have invested time and energy into new causes, but the reason Rosberg has put his money where his mouth is with his FE investment is very simple: he truly believes in the championship and its aims.
“It’s the worldwide movement in e-mobility – that’s the future, big-time,” he says. “It opens so many opportunities – straight away it does local emissions to zero, which is the big health concern; huge benefits there. Overall emissions, no, it’s going to take some time; but there are huge opportunities with renewable energies to then do the whole chain. It’s going to be a world-changer and that’s why I believe in it.
“Also, we are going into a sustainability revolution in general, where mobility is going to play a big role. Every company, every business is starting to think about it – it’s happening. It’s really going to go big, I think, and this is one part of it.”
Agag did not miss a moment to get Rosberg on board with his FE mission. At the FIA gala, just hours after Rosberg had announced his retirement from F1 and was going to collect his world championship prize, Agag introduced himself and began laying the trail to Rosberg’s investment and his Berlin moment.
“It’s great to have him,” says Agag. “I kind of attacked him in the FIA awards ceremony and since then we’ve been in touch. He asks a lot of questions, wants to know a lot of details. He is very thorough, very methodical and very smart.
“My impression is that he’s really looking into a lot of interesting stuff as an investor. Especially new technologies, artificial intelligence, mobility, connectivity and so on. He is a very forward-thinking kind of investor.
“I remember very well when I was in Vienna walking to the FIA prize-giving ceremony and I’d heard the breaking news on the way that he was going to retire from Formula 1 – on the night that he was going to pick up his trophy as world champion!
“I get to the venue and who is just in front of me – I was walking with my wife – but Nico? So, I waited for dinner to pass, more or less, then at the coffee I go to say hello – and his wife looks at me – and I say, ‘Hi, I’m Alejandro Agag from FE and I would like to talk to your husband’. And she goes, ‘Don’t even think about it. He’s not getting into a race car again!'”
Throughout the Berlin weekend in May, Rosberg was jovial and content. He clearly enjoyed the charms of a major international race meeting, without the pressure of competing.
There were many people who thought Rosberg’s racing adventures were not quite over once he left F1. The DTM was a possible destination given that his father’s team has competed in the reborn series since 2000, and FE was also touted as a place he might race.
Plus, one month before his ’16 title triumph was sealed in Abu Dhabi, Mercedes had signalled its intent to enter the electric championship. But there has been no competitive comeback, no grand plan – not yet at least.
“‘Racing driver’ for me is completely done,” he insists. “That’s really ticked off. Now it’s just exciting new adventures. It’s fun to be sitting next to Alejandro in a very different role all of a sudden. It’s nice to talk from different perspectives and join forces.”
Thanks to its impressive array of driving talent, glamorous city-centre locations and exciting wheel-to-wheel combat, FE often finds itself compared to F1. Even more so since myriad manufacturers decided it was the ideal place to establish a racing programme – although it should be said that the championship itself has always sought to follow its own path. The ‘hyperboost’ attack-mode concept being created for season five is unlikely to appear in a grand prix any time soon…
Rosberg does not make the comparison between FE and F1, or see them as rivals. But there is one thing he’d like to see more of in F1 events: the unpredictable, close racing that’s become an FE hallmark.
“I’ll always love our sport [F1],” he says. “It’s very different [from FE]. I don’t see them in direct competition. It’s good racing, good battles [in 2018], so I think F1 is in a pretty good place. But the big downside is still the ability to pass. The aerodynamics have really been a step backwards because they are so extreme now – it’s so difficult to follow. And that’s the key to making that sport better.
“It’s one of the things that we see here in FE, which is just more fun. You see more unpredictability – you see more battles, more wheel-to-wheel [racing], more incidents. That’s what you want to see as a fan when you’re watching, so that’s what F1 needs to work on. Exactly that point.”
It could be thought that being an FE investor would rule Rosberg out from becoming more involved in the series, even if he isn’t going to be making a racing return. But Agag says otherwise: “[It’s] not a problem as long as he’s not on the board of directors. He is not precluded – he is just precluded by his will.”
Rosberg himself is “quite happy with where I am at the moment. It’s a process I’m in – really believing in e-mobility, [and] I’m also an investor in other spaces around e-mobility. I believe in this and would love to leave a footprint in this space.”
There’s a looming Silver presence hanging over FE, one that Rosberg knows well – and one that could, potentially, help him leave his mark. Mercedes, alongside Porsche, is entering FE’s sixth season in 2019/20. It has established a feeder team in HWA to do the groundwork in season five and will leave the DTM at the end of ’18. While its F1 future may be up in the air until the ’21 regulations are finalised, Mercedes appears fully committed to succeeding in FE.
“We all know Mercedes – when they do something they do it properly,” says Rosberg. “Therefore I’m quite convinced that they’re going to do well. But there’s Porsche, Audi and BMW – it’s going to be a huge battle out there. And that’s just for Germany, there’s all the other awesome manufacturers as well. It’s going to be a crazy battle.”
Soon enough, Mercedes motorsport boss Toto Wolff is going to have to choose who will lead the Silver Arrows’ FE project. The Stuttgart marque has many suitable candidates, but there are unlikely to be any others with the ear of the championship’s CEO and a personal stake in seeing it succeed.
Right now, though, Rosberg says that person is not going to be him. “I stopped F1 – among many reasons – because of the demand it has on time. It’s just such a huge commitment.
“The role of a team principal, like the way Toto does it or the way you would have to do it, it would go back to being such a life commitment because all the other guys are committing their lives to it. To do well you need to do the same, you can’t just do it as a part-time job.
“Now, I would not see myself in any such role. This new freedom that I have in my life – which I value a lot – has really been a powerful step for me and so I don’t see myself going away from that any time soon.”
Then he ends on four tantalising words: “But you never know…”