<
>

Rising star Rosberg opening eyes in F1

While Lewis Hamilton was making headlines in his rookie 2007 F1 season, the ever-improving Nico Rosberg, in his second season, was progressing at a pace that put him on Vodafone McLaren Mercedes' short list of possible drivers to replace double world champion Fernando Alonso in 2008.

Rosberg's name was also linked with Ferrari.

AT&T Williams Toyota team co-owners Frank Williams and Patrick Head, however, had no intention of letting go of their star protégée.

Back in September, when the 2008 driver market was more in a state of flux, a reporter told Williams that some people thought Rosberg might soon be on his way to McLaren or Ferrari.

"These are people whose heads are in the clouds while at the same time their feet are not on the ground," Williams said.

The Williams team subsequently took up its option on Rosberg for 2008, and he will team up with rookie Kazuki Nakajima, who is the son of former F1 driver Satoru Nakajima.

Nico, of course, is the son of 1982 world champion Keke Rosberg. Nico made a strong impression in his F1 debut in Bahrain last year, charging from 21st to seventh (after a first-lap collision) and setting the fastest lap of the race.

During the rest of 2006 season, however, Rosberg's star faded along with that of the Williams team, which was going through its most uncompetitive season in nearly 30 years. After a rocky start, both driver and team bounced back in 2007.

"The balance of the year has been positive," Rosberg said. "In many ways, it's been a good year for me. As is normal during a long season, we had some ups and downs. Races seemed to start off well in the opening rounds of the season, but the results just weren't there.

"As the season progressed, though, we were able to capitalize on strong starting positions, get some good results and consistently collect championship points. So yes, it was a good year."

With Ferrari, McLaren and BMW Sauber clearly being the three fastest teams in 2007, there was an intense battle to be the best of the rest in the next pack of teams that included ING Renault, AT&T Williams Toyota and Red Bull Racing. They eventually ended up in that order in the constructors' championship.

Rosberg ended up ninth in the drivers' championship, with only Renault's Heikki Kovalainen and Giancarlo Fisichella ahead of him among the drivers who were not with the top three teams.

"We've definitely made progress since last year and achieved that in a number of different ways," Rosberg said. "A lot of improvement came following some careful restructuring of the existing team and then by bringing a few very skilled and experienced new people onboard.

"From the very first tests, the FW29 was working pretty well, which allowed us to further develop it throughout the season, both at the factory and on the track."

The 2006 Williams FW28 was embarrassingly unreliable, and that was one area the team worked very hard on to improve with the 2007 FW29. Rosberg also felt far more comfortable with the chassis setup this year.

"One of the key things I really noticed this year was that, while the car was improving both mechanically and aerodynamically, we were also managing to set it up in the most advantageous way for most of the circuits," he explained.

"I was able to get the speed more consistently and, together with my engineers, we were able to set up the car to a balance that really suited my driving style, which meant I could really push for it."

Rosberg rounded off the season with a fourth place in Brazil, a race he rates as one the highlights of the year.

"Brazil has to be up there because it's where I achieved my best result in
F1 so far, finishing fourth [after] having started in 10th," he recalled. "I had another good fight with the BMWs and I beat them fair and square with a well-executed overtaking maneuver going into the first corner."

It's said that they always remember you for your results in your last race, so Rosberg ended 2007 on a high note. But Rosberg's name had been linked to other teams before that.

It was crucial, however, for Williams to hang on to the promising Rosberg, as he is one of the cores of the team's rebuilding program.

Williams is the third-oldest and third-most successful team in F1 with an outstanding winning legacy that includes nine constructors' world championships and seven drivers' world championships.

The team, however, has not won a championship since Jacques Villeneuve won the title in 1997, and it has not won a Grand Prix since Juan Pablo Montoya's victory in Brazil in 2005.

But Williams is revitalizing itself, and Rosberg is a central part of that plan.

"I don't think it would be the death of the team if Nico left," team co-owner Head said, "but as a competitive force, until we found somebody who could replace Nico, it would certainly be very difficult.

"And obviously it wouldn't give the right message to people inside our team either, in terms of people that we have put in significant positions, if we didn't have a driver whom they felt could make good use of the work they are doing. So it [letting Rosberg join a rival team] is something that neither Frank nor myself are even contemplating."

Rosberg says he hopes he can drive for Williams for years to come.

"I'm not going anywhere, at least for another season, and hopefully for longer than that," he told The Mail on Sunday newspaper in London.

"It's very nice to be linked to a move to McLaren and it would certainly be interesting to team up with Lewis [Hamilton] again after we were teammates a few years back.

"But I'm very happy where I am. We made significant progress last year and I'm hoping we continue to improve even more next season."

Lewis Hamilton's McLaren will no doubt be quicker than Nico Rosberg's Williams in 2008, but Rosberg's star value will continue to increase.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.