Nico Rosberg: how the F1 champion went from the track to a Twizy

The former Mercedes driver on his mission to bring electric transport to the masses.

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Nico Rosberg’s retirement from Formula One in 2016 came as a surprise – “even to me,” he says with a grin. Just five days after winning the sport’s world title aged 31 and only ten years into his career, Rosberg abruptly walked away from the track. Having finished first in nine of the season’s 21 grands prix and achieved 16 podium finishes, Rosberg took the overall title from his former Mercedes teammate, Lewis Hamilton, in the final race. After being crowned the “best in the world at what I did”, Rosberg “didn’t feel the need” to carry on. “I was listening to my feelings,” he says, “and I just wanted to say thank you very much [to my fans], you’ve been sensational, but now I’m going to bow out, on the highest moment possible.”

Since leaving the track Rosberg has found a range of new interests, including “protecting the planet”, which he says “should be one for everyone”. An “inspirational, soul-searching trip” to San Francisco’s Silicon Valley tech district shortly after his final race informed an environmental awareness “that I guess wasn’t really there before”, he explains.“When I was racing, I didn’t give it [climate change] as much thought. I was just focused on winning and that was that. But after retiring, it was a case of broadening my horizons… I visited Tesla on my trip, and I saw the massive potential that e-mobility has to do good for our planet. It’s not the ultimate step, but it is a big part of how we can reduce the impact of energy-intensive industries.”

As someone who has spent his life “on the move”, Rosberg says it stands to reason that his new interests lie in “the world of mobility”. The son of the Finnish F1 driver Keke Rosberg, who won the world championship in 1982, Rosberg says he has been “fascinated” by cars and how people get around since childhood. In his post-race career he has turned his attention away from the track and towards the transport sector at large, taking over a company his father started in 1994, Team Rosberg Engineering (TRE). In partnership with German automotive manufacturer Schaeffler, TRE is working on the development of the Schaeffler Mover, a self-driving “green urban shuttle vehicle” that can drive sideways and spin on its axis.

The Mover, which looks a bit like a four-seater golf buggy, is an electric vehicle that Rosberg says, represents “one of the most futuristic shuttles” and is powered by motors that are also used in the ABT Schaeffler FE01 Formula E racing car, with a “total power output of about 880 kW”. A road-worthy model of the Schaeffler Mover should “be ready in the next couple of years”, and one day he hopes it might “supplement or even replace public transit” in crowded cities. Rosberg sees technologies such as the Mover as vital to the cities of the future, which will demand “fewer emissions and better mobility”. “The world”, he says, “needs to get smarter about how it travels”.

Rosberg may have retired from F1 but he has since become an investor in Formula E, which uses electric cars. Contested by 11 teams with two drivers each, Formula E had its inaugural season in 2014-15. Racing mostly takes place on city streets, on temporary circuits between 1.9 and 3.4km long, rather than on purpose-built tracks. Rosberg is optimistic that Formula E can continue to grow in popularity – “it’s really taking off” – and hopes that F1 can learn from its example. “If the whole world is moving towards electric cars, it doesn’t make any sense for F1 to carry on [using combustion engines]. All of us have a responsibility to look after our planet, including in sport. Formula E is well positioned to lead in this space.”

In fact, Rosberg predicts, a merger between F1 and FE in the future “could be possible”. Both are partly owned, through different companies, by the empire of the American broadcasting magnate John Malone. Both series are governed by Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the international trade association for motorsport, although FE currently holds an exclusive license for all electric racing until at least 2039. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen right away... I would guess it [a merger] will happen within seven or eight years.”

Rosberg concedes that “for the time being”, FE will “struggle to match the performance” of F1’s cars, in terms of speed, and by extension, spectacle. “At the moment,” he says, “it wouldn’t be realistic for FE to do the same… you have to wait for battery technologies to evolve further and then the performance of electric cars will improve at higher speeds. The challenge we have now is being able to have swappable batteries that can be changed [during pit stops].”

That’s not to say that electric cars can’t be super-fast. Rosberg says that Automobili Pininfarina’s Battista model, due to be launched next year, is a potential watershed moment. The Battista’s four electric motors create a total output equivalent to 1,900 horsepower, and it will be able to accelerate to 100km/h (62mph) in 1.9 seconds, making it more powerful and able to accelerate faster than an F1 car. With a top speed in excess of 349km/h (217mph), Rosberg says the Battista’s “speed and acceleration would be ridiculous. It would be an incredible sensation… even I would be shocked. It’s a whole new dimension. Companies are investing in the science [of electric cars] …I think if FE and F1 teams embrace it, then we can expect a lot of progress.”

Rosberg himself drives a two-seater electric Renault Twizy, which he describes as “cool and fun”. Would a car such as the Battista tempt him back to the track? “No. I’m done with the grid now; I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve. I miss winning races, sure, but that chapter of my life is done. I am happy in my retirement. I’m exploring what I can do in the electrification space. And I want to spend time with my children.”

Achieving widespread electrification, Rosberg says, “will require a global effort”. Governments, industry and academia, he says, must all work together to “drive prices down” as quickly as possible and make sure “the infrastructure is there to support” electric cars. “We can’t expect people to want to drive electric vehicles if they are priced out of buying them and there isn’t the opportunity to charge them easily. People are worried about breaking down on a motorway; you have to address that. Am I going to run out of battery, and be stranded? What if I got on the motorway and there isn’t a charging station? You have to showcase EVs and what they can do, so people don’t think they are buying a downgrade. There are even more simple things; people will want to know how electric cars handle. Are they fun? You have to make the environmental case, for sure, but if you want people to drive electric cars then you have to show that they won’t need to compromise on their expectations of performance.

“We have to acknowledge that this issue [climate change] represents a big challenge in developing countries. We can’t just worry about cars in London, for example… we need infrastructure worldwide and in countries where there is the most air pollution. Every petrol company should be working hard to modernise, to be viewed more as an ‘energy’ company… they need to make the switch.”

Attending the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, Rosberg says, was part of his attempt to bring “fast-lane thinking into the slow lane. People love to talk… I’m about turning that chit-chat into action. If we can have meetings and then save lives as a result, that’s what we want.”

Does Rosberg think that his own celebrity, as a successful and popular former racing driver with 2.1 million Twitter followers, will help to increase the appeal of driving EVs among the wider public? The grin returns. “Maybe. If it does, then I am happy.”

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman