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Nico Rosberg: A man in his own time

Steve Etherington/Getty Images

I've seen plenty of world champions go -- and in some cases, come back again -- but never have I witnessed a departure like this one.

The world of F1 media spent Friday reeling as schedules, plans and programmes were swept aside by the news from Vienna. No one saw it coming. In a business driven by rumour accelerated into inaccurate fact by social media, there had not been a single suggestion that Nico Rosberg would make the trophy he craved most his last.

The new world champion's exhausted state in the Abu Dhabi media centre on Sunday evening said two things. Here was an indication of the intense pressure, not just during the final 10 laps as his life's work had come under a threat he could do little about, but of a mental battle that had actually begun with recovery from the crushing defeat by Lewis Hamilton in the U.S. Grand Prix in September 2015.

And despite the appearance of fatigue, there was a feeling that once the relief of finally achieving that dream had been realised over the coming hours and days, Rosberg was going to march into 2017 more confident than before with the crown on his head and the monkey off his back.

As it turns out, the one thought in his mind was getting back his life with his wife sitting quietly and happily among the journalists in the audience. Vivian knew he was likely to retire. But no one else had an inkling at that stage. Not even his father as I later chatted to Keke and recalled Las Vegas 34 years before when the first Rosberg name went on the championship trophy his boy had just won the right to hold.

Keke knew all about the stress Nico had been under earlier that evening. He was familiar with the fallacy of 'not needing to win and only score points' supposedly making the race comparatively straightforward. In Las Vegas, Keke 'only' required two more points; fifth place being good enough on 25 September 1982.

"You can't believe how difficult that is," Keke recalled. "There were concrete walls all round that stupid track and you were afraid of someone doing something stupid and pushing you into one. Your nerves are raw. Mario [Andretti] had a suspension failure and [his Ferrari] nearly hit me. That would have been it. Championship gone! I could hardly watch the last few laps today. I knew exactly what Nico was going through. Now he can enjoy himself next year. He's earned it after a season like this one."

Nico, a man very much at ease in his own skin, was soon to decide that he had earned the right to something else. Whether he regrets that in three months or three years, or not at all, is irrelevant. It was a brave decision, one that will later spare us the frequent discomfort of watching a former champion continue to fight the passing of years as well as hungry competitors almost half his age.

Rosberg, in turn, will not have any concern over the easy but inevitable social media sneers about a championship won only because of Lewis's 'bad luck'. The championship was over 21 races, the winner being the driver with the most points. Luck does play a part; Keke will admit that. But there is no asterisk listing caveats by his name on the championship trophy. And there will be none against the winner 34 places higher on the silverware.

Lewis Hamilton may be the fastest man out there, but Nico Rosberg is the 2016 world champion. He applied himself and worked exceptionally hard for it. He deserves that accolade just as much as respect for making such a dignified exit.