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Rosberg retirement: Nico has the last laugh

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Gow: A brave decision from Rosberg (1:42)

Jennie Gow says Nico Rosberg has made a brave decision in retiring from Formula One so soon after his title win. (1:42)

Being in Vienna's Hofburg Palace when Nico Rosberg announced his F1 retirement was something of a surreal experience. Despite a room filled with journalists and PRs, no one was entirely sure whether or not the news was a joke -- the newly-crowned champion stood grinning on the stage, with just enough humour in his eyes that the news could have gone either way.

It was only when Mercedes boss Toto Wolff took to the stage to speak of Rosberg's bravery in deciding to quit while he was ahead that the news began to sink in.

There will no doubt be all sorts of ink spilled in the next few days debating whether or not Nico was right to stop when the childhood dream of attaining a Formula One drivers' title came true.

On the one hand, leaving on a high is no bad thing -- Nico's memories of Formula One will not be soured by possible struggles with the 2017 regulations, or a season of reliability struggles. Instead, Rosberg's F1 finale will be fixed in his memory as a whirlwind of champagne, hugs, fireworks, and approximately 90 million TV cameras in his face in the team garage.

But on the other hand, to leave the sport without even having tested the car with which he may have been able to defend his title risks a future filled with what-ifs, of unanswered questions of what could have been had he only stuck it out a little longer.

Over the past seven years I have seen Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher, Mark Webber, Felipe Massa, and Jenson Button retire from Formula One, and while the last two men on that list probably haven't got around to sending that last race suit to the cleaners yet, the first three men all used the occasion of their retirements (or second retirement, in one case...) to reflect on the difficulty of finding the perfect time to go.

When Schumacher retired for the second time, he left feeling that there was no unfinished business to keep him in the cockpit. " I can be happy with my performance and the fact that I was continuously raising my game during the last three years," he said in 2012.

"But then, at some point it is time to say goodbye. Already during the past weeks and months I was not sure if I would still have the motivation and energy which is necessary to go on; and it is not my style to do anything which I am not 100% convinced about.

"With today's decision I feel released from those doubts. In the end, it is not my ambition to just drive around but to fight for victories; and the pleasure of driving is nourished by competitiveness."

Massa announced his retirement at Monza, in a deliberate echo of Schumacher's first retirement, and said that to reach the decision had involved a lot of soul-searching. "I'm relieved and happy," he said in September. "You need to be strong enough to make decisions that are quite difficult. That is what I did. I'm relieved and happy with what I'm doing. I think this year was the time to [retire]."

Rosberg is confident that 2016 was his moment, and said that the sacrifices involved in securing a world title were not to be repeated.

"Since 25 years in racing, it has been my dream, my 'one thing' to become Formula One World Champion," he said. "Through the hard work, the pain, the sacrifices, this has been my target. And now I've made it. I have climbed my mountain, I am on the peak, so this feels right. My strongest emotion right now is deep gratitude to everybody who supported me to make that dream happen.

"This season, I tell you, it was so damn tough. I pushed like crazy in every area after the disappointments of the last two years; they fuelled my motivation to levels I had never experienced before. And of course that had an impact on the ones I love, too -- it was a whole family effort of sacrifice, putting everything behind our target. I cannot find enough words to thank my wife Vivian; she has been incredible. She understood that this year was the big one, our opportunity to do it, and created the space for me to get full recovery between every race, looking after our daughter each night, taking over when things got tough and putting our championship first."

Rosberg's decision to retire if he won the 2016 title was taken at Suzuka, he told media in Vienna on Friday. But the team were not told until the championship was over and the title secured, with Rosberg telling Wolff and teammate Hamilton of his decision in the early part of the week. The champion admitted to feeling a little as though he had left the team in the lurch having taken the decision at such short notice, but Rosberg was confident that it was the right choice for him.

That Rosberg was confident that his time had come to retire was plain for all those assembled in Vienna to see. But the response to the news was divided between those who understood the desire -- the brave decision, as Wolff branded it -- to quit while you're ahead, and those who can't comprehend a passion for racing that is "completed" once a target is met, a title secured, a goal achieved.

The flipside of Rosberg's level-headed approach to challenges both on-track and off is that it is easy to read his even-handedness as a lack of passion. While Formula One is largely fuelled by drivers who would sell kidneys, firstborns, and grandparents for the opportunity to secure a seat with a top-tier team, Rosberg -- for the length of my time in the paddock, at least -- has been the driver best able to separate any burning passion he feels for motorsport from the job he has been paid to do.

That separation has reaped dividends for Rosberg this year, handing the Monaco resident a world championship trophy earned after a hard-fought and consistent season. But it is that separation that has enabled him to walk away from the sport without feeling the need to defend his title, to re-prove his ability under a new set of regulations, to stamp himself on the sport as only a multiple champion can. Let's hope there are no regrets or what-ifs to come.