Big personality team owners are nothing new in motorsport. Hell, Enzo Ferrari still casts a shadow over Formula One 33 years after his death. But the new electric off-road Extreme E championship, which debuted in Saudi Arabia this weekend, promises to reignite a rivalry that dominated the F1 narrative a few short years ago.
Sir Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, former Mercedes-AMG team-mates and antagonists, are now both team owners in this combative, controversial and environmentally conscious new series. It counts former F1 world champion Jenson Button and WRC superstars Carlos Sainz and Sébastian Loeb among the drivers, but also gives a much-needed platform to female motor racing talent.
Rosberg’s team RXR drew first blood in the desert region of Al Ula on Sunday, his drivers Johan Kristofferson and Molly Taylor finishing ahead of Hamilton’s team X44 duo of Loeb and Cristina Gutierrez.
Triple world rallycross champion Kristofferson and Australian rally champion Taylor were mesmerising across the shifting sands and unpredictable undulations of the desert track. Rosberg beamed like a proud parent throughout the weekend, freely admitting that his drivers were doing something he would no longer dream of trying. We caught up with the 2015 F1 world champion turned tech investor and born again eco-entrepreneur.
Top Gear: First things first, what are you doing here?
Nico Rosberg: When Alejandro [Agag] first launched Extreme E it didn’t really catch my attention much because rallying is not really my thing, although the electric side was great. But once I understood the foundation of it was this social cause – climate activism and female equality – all these things packaged into it convinced me that I would love to do it. It combines my passion for racing with my passion for sustainability. As an entrepreneur I’m 100 per cent focused on that in anything I do. It fits perfectly for me. The turtles on the beach and clearing away plastic makes just a little difference but it’s about showing you that care.
How did this passion and commitment to sustainability start?
It’s more about a life of service, really, doing something for many people to benefit from. I studied psychology for 10 years, initially to become a better F1 driver, but actually it was for my life. I understood that it’s better to help others now. That’s my goal as an entrepreneur. Getting involved and working towards the greater good.
Being an F1 driver is an inherently selfish existence…
That’s what I’m saying, that’s the past: this hardcore, selfish approach. And it’s very refreshing and fulfilling to go down this new direction. My first life was amazing. But this new direction is also very nice. I think for the long-term future it’s the right direction for me. We have our own initiative as a team, helping local craftspeople, we’re working with a foundation started by Prince Charles and supported by one of the biggest local activists here.
[We’re interrupted by Carlos Sainz appearing at the entrance to his team tent, where he starts blowing sand off his shoes with an air gun] Isn’t that so cool? All these legends of motor sport. I mean, Chip Ganassi – even I’m like, Chip it’s nice to meet you! We have three F1 world champions and all these great rally drivers, of which Molly is certainly one. Both Johan and Molly drove very well today, it was really nice to see. I’m on the other side of the fence now and to watch that talent in action, it’s a special feeling.
Were you not tempted to replicate Jenson Button and also get behind the wheel?
I was a little bit, I thought about it. But after today I’m pretty convinced I’m in the right place. I’m not that kind of risk seeker anymore. It’s not for me, you know, I’m good. Some of those shunts were absolutely mental. It’s very much on the edge out there, so hats off to the drivers.
What kind of team principal are you?
The main thing was putting things together, including the drivers, contacting them myself, doing the deal myself, choosing them myself, with the help of the team. I was going through the night with Molly because of the time zone and there were so many other teams speaking to her. Every night I was trying to convince Molly to join us. And Johan is the world rallycross GOAT so as you can imagine there was interest in him, too.
What is so awesome is that the battle for Johan was the same as for Molly, and that’s not usually the case. That was so empowering for the women here. She must have been thinking ‘holy sh*t, the whole world wants me’. I can also be a challenger because I have a lot of experience both on the engineering front and in the biggest things that can go wrong on the driving front. And on the image front as well. So it’s all the way through, and I’m trying to get as involved as much as possible without being a pain.
What did you like (and not like) as a driver in terms of the relationship with the team boss?
Oh I remember exactly what I liked and didn’t like. I don’t like it when a team manager puts the blame on you internally, and it’s clear to the whole team that he thinks that you are to blame. Because I’m very sensitive and most race drivers would be sensitive to that. You have to be careful because driver confidence is so essential. You want to do everything you can at all times to try to keep that high. It’s the most important thing. Look at Sebastian Vettel, one of the greatest drivers in our sport. The only way to possibly explain something like that is that he has a mental negative spiral which he needs to find his way out of.
The bigger the rivalry we have with Jenson or Lewis here, the better it will be
Can he do that?
Before the season started I would have said yes, 100 per cent. I’d still say that but watching him in Bahain was a bit strange. The most important thing for drivers is to keep that mental confidence up. I’m trying to pick out the best of what I’ve seen and not do a Patrick Head! That was painful, saying stuff like ‘you’re going to put us out of business if you continue driving like that’ in the middle of qualifying… He wasn’t always like that. Sam Michael [former Williams F1 technical director] once said to me, ‘you were useless to us this weekend’. I mean, I was useless, I spun off by myself from last place. But I was a young driver with only a couple of GPs under my belt. It’s because they are all hard-asses and they have a little bit of empathy difficulty sometimes. They needed to realise I was really sensitive as a driver and needed to see their love.
Are most drivers sensitive creatures at the end of the day?
It depends. If you take the case of Verstappen, not so much. To cope with the amount of criticism he had in that one year when he made mistake after mistake, and he still remained so committed and tell everyone else ‘I’m going to headbutt you if you say that one more time’… I would have been in my cave by then, you know?
A Schumacher could deal with it and was on the more resilient side. It’s not clear if it’s a strength or weakness because a sensitive driver will question themselves first and the people who are more self-confident will see the blame in other people on the car. For me it was a great force in the end. I was always questioning myself, always trying to find the next step, to make myself better.
Was your championship in 2016 really so tough mentally that you simply had to walk away from F1?
It was the perfect moment for me, in every sense of the word. It was beautiful, I achieved my dream. It was intense so I was OK with the intensity coming to an end. But it also gave me the opportunity for a second life and to be here now in Extreme E, with a social force at the heart of motor sport for the first time ever. The power of sport to effect change is fantastic. Twenty-four of the 25 biggest broadcasts of all time were sports. The power of sport is unbelievable and really untapped in terms of social causes.
We are seeing the start with Black Lives Matter, it is starting to pick up now, but there is so much potential. We can show how it is done, and maybe the Olympics will follow us or the soccer World Cup. Personally speaking, change is always going to be more difficult than doing the same thing, but it can be a bigger step in the right direction for an even better life. What I’m seeing here is that if we do have a chance to win something, and it looks like we will be fighting for victory, I can relive some of those emotions even if I’m not in the car.
It looks like your toughest competition is coming from X44.
Yeah, how funny was that? It was Hamilton vs Rosberg out there all day. We haven’t had the opportunity to talk yet and it’s early days in the championship, but if we have a rivalry with Jenson Button or Lewis, the bigger the rivalry here, the better it will be. That’s what we’re here for. I mean, we want to beat everybody here, but the more intense it is the better it will be, and the more impact we’ll have.
What about Le Mans?
As a driver? Well no, because I’m scared [laughs]. Just as I am here. I would love to be out there, but I’m scared. As a team let’s do this first… it’s a big enough challenge as it is.
What do you think of the criticisms being in Saudi Arabia has attracted?
What we want to do as a sport is go to places where there is an opportunity to improve the situation. We know Saudi is definitely making improvements in various areas, that there is still a long way to go, but on Monday for example we’re working with Muna AbuSulayman who is a leading activist in Saudi Arabia. We’ll try to leave this place in a better state than when we arrived, like everywhere else we are going.
How’s your father?
My father is doing fine, yes. He’s following every single moment, I’m getting daily WhatsApp messages. I thought I might invite him to a race, it would be nice to do a trip together.
He doesn’t strike us as someone who particularly cares about sustainability…
No. That’s not him.
But presumably he wants his grandkids to grow up in a better world, I guess…
No, I don’t think so on that one either [laughs] He says ‘electric cars, what the f**k is that?’ But the funny thing is we’re transforming him now, we’re getting there, because if we get him then the sky is the limit. He was the one that when I invested in Formula E said, ‘what the hell are you doing?’ And now he’s setting the alarm to watch it on the TV – and loving it. He understands it’s the future, that it needs to happen.
You’re getting a Rimac C2, aren’t you?
I’m fully electric, and into hydrogen as well. Combustion cars if it’s synthetic fuels, which is the way I want F1 to go. Let’s see how realistic it is, see if they can really have impact with that. It’s expensive and environmentally damaging to produce, and it only makes sense with the positive impact you can have with the development. That’s still the difficulty. In emerging markets if you can go with synthetic fuels until electric mobility comes there, it’s a huge jump in the right direction for the transition.
There will be millions of combustion engines left, maybe for decades. So if you have a synthetic fuel solution… I’m on the German Dragon’s Den, I’m the sustainability dragon. The most prominent idea is the flying taxis but I’m also discovering food, insect food, vegan food. I visited Mate Rimac recently, I have so much respect for what he’s doing. There’s no real infrastructure there, he’s on his own but he’s getting amazing talent. And his sustainability campus which he’s probably going to discuss at my next GreenTech festival in Berlin, in June. You’re very welcome to come along.