Nico Rosberg can fight at the front

Nico Rosberg does not have the fastest car, nor does he have a team that show him preferential treatment. But there is a reason why Sebastian Vettel said his compatriotis one of the sport’s most underrated drivers.

Recently minted four-time champion Sebastian Vettel is high on the skills of fellow German Nico Rosberg. Karim Sahib / AFP
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The challenge of gaining recognition in Formula One is almost as difficult as those not involved in the sport trying to gain access to its exclusive paddock.

Sebastian Vettel, like Michael Schumacher before him, is breaking records for fun. Yet he still has his detractors, those who argue the German driver simply has the fastest car and a Red Bull Racing team that favour him.

Nico Rosberg does not have the fastest car, nor does he have a team that show him preferential treatment.

In fact, at the Malaysian Grand Prix in March, the Mercedes-GP team suggested they might even lean slightly toward his newly procured teammate, Lewis Hamilton.

If Vettel cannot convince fans of his transcendent skill after four years of championship titles and seven consecutive race wins, what chance does Rosberg, a relative also-ran, have?

The Monaco resident’s third-place finish in Abu Dhabi on Sunday was his fourth podium result in what can only be seen as a breakthrough year.

Yes, he claimed his first win in China last season, but the German – and his team – have made a noticeable step up this year. For the first time in his eight seasons in F1, at times his car has appeared capable of fighting at the front.

Until 2013, despite the victory in Shanghai and a second-place finish in Monaco the previous year, he had never driven a car capable of challenging for the drivers’ championship. Instead, he was forced to rely on comparing his performances against those of his teammates, including Schumacher, to gauge how strong he was in the ultra-competitive field.

Rosberg beat Schumacher, the seven-time world champion, in each of the three seasons they raced together, between 2010 and 2012.

When the more decorated of the two drivers hung up his helmet for the final time at the end of last season, the final points tally revealed that Rosberg held a 324-197 edge.

That is not to proclaim Rosberg a superior driver to his elder compatriot, but purely that when the two raced together in the same machinery, Rosberg performed better. Sure, Schumacher had been away from the sport, and having celebrated his 40th birthday, it meant his dominant days were behind him. But the points do not lie.

Rosberg won.

There is a reason, after all, why Vettel said his compatriot at Mercedes is one of the sport’s most underrated drivers.

When Vettel noted that his fellow German was “underestimated”, Rosberg replied: “I’m not really sure whether or not I am getting the credit I deserve – or that people think I deserve. But it’s nice to hear Sebastian speaks highly of me.”

It is not only Vettel. When Hamilton joined Mercedes at the start of the season, he was quick to praise his new teammate, calling him a “strong competitor”, and again, “underestimated”.

As is natural when a world champion driver joins a new marque, the focus of the F1 fraternity has largely been on Hamilton this year.

The reclusive Rosberg, somewhat unfairly, has again been cast in the shadow of his more prominent teammate. Yet he has pushed the dogged Hamilton to his limit.

With two races remaining, Hamilton is beating Rosberg in qualifying with a 10-7 overall lead, including 5-3 in poles. In terms of finishing positions, however, it is a different story. Hamilton again leads 9-8, but Rosberg has two wins compared to his teammate’s one.

Factor in Malaysia, where the German was ordered to remain behind Hamilton despite being the quicker of the team’s two cars, and Rosberg could arguably deserve to hold the race advantage. In the drivers’ championship, Hamilton leads Rosberg by 16 points.

It is next year that will prove the ultimate opportunity for Rosberg to enhance his reputation. The 2014 regulation overhaul will see all 11 teams switch to a 1.6-litre turbocharged V6 engine.

With only three engine manufacturers in the sport – Ferrari, Renault and Mercedes – Rosberg should have an early advantage over the majority of his rivals.

Additionally, he is renowned as one of the paddock’s more technically intelligent drivers.

“I see it as a great opportunity for me, because I really like to see all the technical stuff and understanding it is one of my strengths,” he said. “Next year, with everything being so new, I hope to be able to use it to my advantage.”

If he is provided the car, he has proven he has the ability to win the championship. And with that, perhaps, the reputation he deserves.

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