The German started the weekend knowing third place would be enough to secure him his first title in motorsport’s premier category, but the race became a tense duel with teammate and race winner Lewis Hamilton, who attempted to manufacturer a four-way fight for the lead to steal Rosberg’s crown.
Hamilton drove almost farcically slowly around the Yas Marina circuit, speeding up only at the parts of the track Rosberg could launch an attack on his lead, to allow Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen to close in on the Mercedes pair.
Vettel, whose strategy meant he finished the race on faster tyres than the Mercedes drivers did, left Rosberg stuck in a pincer attack in the final five laps, knowing all the while that losing position to Vettel would leave him vulnerable to the always-aggressive Verstappen in fourth, as was Hamilton’s plan.
Rosberg, however, drove masterfully to the situation, defending against the chasing Ferrari expertly to deny his unyielding teammate fulfilment of his cunning plan.
The world championship was his.
“That was definitely not the most enjoyable race I’ve ever had,” Rosberg said on the podium, the relief obvious as he fought to contain his emotions. “The feelings out there … unreal, really unreal. Pressure on from behind, Lewis driving slow at the front; it was a tough one.
“I’m very, very glad it’s over, and I’m unbelievably ecstatic.”
Nico’s title comes 34 years after his father, Keke, won his sole world championship in 1982, famously with a single victory.
Similarly the younger Rosberg claimed the 2016 title with one fewer win than his teammate – Hamilton won 10 races to Rosberg’s nine – and he paid credit to the Briton, who beat him to the crown in 2014 and 2015.
“I also want to say congrats to Lewis – you did a great season – a great competitor [who is] massively quick always,” he said before dedicating the championship to his wife, Vivian, and their one-year-old daughter, Alaïa.
Hamilton, who only briefly congratulated his teammate for his title success – a sign of just how much their childhood friendship has degraded since the pair became teammates – divided fans and pundits with his driving strategy, particularly for his blunt refusal to heed team orders and speed up to protect the Mercedes one-two finish from Sebastian Vettel.
“I don’t feel I did anything unfair,” Hamilton said. “We’re fighting for a championship. I was in the lead, I control the pace – that’s the rules.”
The Briton also re-emphasised his belief that only technical troubles prevented him from defeating his teammate over the course of the season.
“Nico had a very, very clean year without any real issues, to be honest, and that’s why we sit in this position right now,” he said.
Hamilton said earlier in the week that he already considered himself a sort of moral world champion for this reason, telling reporters that, “If [Nico] is labelled ‘the world champion’, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the way it’s been labelled in my heart”.
His comments set a fascinating precedent for a new intra-team dynamic at Mercedes next season, when Hamilton will start on the back foot and the German marque will likely have its three-year dominance challenged by rivals under a new regulatory regime.
Formula One now embarks on a four-month racing hiatus, with pre-season testing commencing at the end of February before round one of the 2017 season in Melbourne on 26 March.