What we can say is that in the fiercest fight of their lives, in the final race of the season, in the latest chapter of a rivalry that stretches back half their lifetimes, everything that mattered to them in motor racing was on the line.
For Nico Rosberg, this was the chance to beat Lewis Hamilton for the first time. He had not done it when they were boy karters. He had never done it in the same equipment.
It is that dynamic, one man trying to protect his hegemony, another trying to assert himself, that framed the whole dusk edition of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, a controversial 55 laps that ended up with Rosberg emulating his father Keke, the 1982 winner, as the champion of the world.
This was very much a private duel under 5000 lightbulbs. Rosberg and Hamilton’s shared history is just one of the factors that may have defined the Briton’s tactics: namely, going as slowly as possible to push Rosberg into the bunch behind him, hoping the German would be pressured into self-destruction.
The mathematics going into the 21st and deciding round meant Rosberg only had to finish in the top three to be assured of the title. Given he started second, a place behind Hamilton, it should have been easy in a strong Mercedes.
Even more so if Hamilton had blasted away and won by miles. Rosberg could coast home, the title his.
My belief is that Hamilton should have done exactly that. It would have been stylish. It would have shown he was a true champion, whatever the record books said. It would have proven him, for all time, as a sportsman of legend.
But, not wishing to cede his statistical invincibility to Rosberg, he opted to play a very different game - the backing-up ploy. He did it skilfully. But it did not quite work.
When the fireworks went off at the chequered flag, Hamilton was four tenths of a second ahead of Rosberg, with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel the same distance off the new champion.
Hamilton defied his team to enact his strategy. He was asked by race engineer Pete Bonnington: “Just wondering why you are so slow.”
It did nothing to speed Hamilton up. So later on, Paddy Lowe, the team’s technical director and the voice of last resort, came on to say: “This is Paddy. We need you to pick up the pace.”
Hamilton ignored him, too.
“I’m quite comfortable where I am,” came the reply.
Mercedes’ point was that Hamilton was endangering victory, given that Vettel, on fresh tyres, was coming on a charge. Hamilton was unconcerned.
“Right now, I am losing the world championship so I am not bothered if I lose the race.”
Hamilton was not breaking any Formula One rules, and who is to say that Rosberg would not have tried the same ruse had the roles been reversed? Nor was it by any means the dirtiest trick deployed in a title decider. Think of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher.
Indeed, Rosberg could always have tried to pass Hamilton and seize the initiative. Or have put himself on pole and been in control from the off. But he did make one pass, on Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, that added some glitter to his night of glory.
It is hard to say Rosberg did not deserve his first title for sheer endurance. It takes an immense resilience to withstand the world telling you that Hamilton is much better. When it was over, Rosberg took a long, lingering look at his impregnable silver car. And walked up to it and kissed it.
Then the hugging and hollering started, though Hamilton and Rosberg circled each other, one brief touch and an enforced handshake on the podium the only signs of warmth.
Rosberg greeted his mother Sina, who had appeared in the pit area from nowhere. He lifted his visor to embrace his wife Vivian, the one person who had witnessed every pre-race nerve-twitch that he had tried to keep hidden from the world. He lifted Bernie Ecclestone clean off his feet. And on the podium his voice was a parched testament to emotion.
“It feels like I have been racing Lewis for ever and he has always managed to just edge me out, even when we were small in go-karts,” he said. “He is an amazing driver and one of the best in history, so it is just unbelievably special to beat him. That makes this so much more satisfying because he set the benchmark and I took the world championship from him.”
They were graceful remarks. Sad to report, Hamilton banged on about his technical problems, suggesting the pair of them would be in different places but for those blights. It was a poor remark at the wrong time.
Vettel stepped in as a rebuke to the former champion’s carping, telling him that it was a “sign of respect and greatness to say he is a deserving champion”. He also pointed out that at different times over the years bad luck has visited them all.
As Vettel left the room, Vivian Rosberg kissed him.
“Two Rosbergs are world champions,” said the victor, promising a party for the ages. One visitor had yet to arrive, Keke. When he finally turned up, he was puffing an appropriately big cigar. He had arrived from Dubai, where he had been hiding all weekend, close at hand.
What went through his mind when Hamilton was backing his boy up?
“I took a deep sip of my beer and I thought this is going to get hot,” said Keke, the only champion to have seen his son win the title, Graham Hill being long dead by the time Damon triumphed in 1996.
Beers were still being downed at the Mercedes hospitality area after 10pm that night - and Vivian Rosberg was wearing her husband’s overalls.
Original source: Nico Rosberg’s long, hard road to glory