With the return of former world champion Kimi Räikkönen to F1, it seems apt to look back thirty years to 1982 and to the first Finn to win the world drivers’ championship, Nico Rosberg’s dad, Keke.
Keijo Erik Rosberg was actually born in Sweden on December 6th 1948, but his Finnish parents moved back home while Keke was still a young boy and he took Finnish nationality. His involvement with motorsport began with karting, winning both the Finnish and Scandinavian championships in 1966. At the time, the usual route taken by Finnish drivers was to become rally drivers, but Rosberg took the unusual step of circuit racing, taking part in Formula Vee, Formula Super Vee, and both the Formula Atlantic and Pacific championships. He also raced in the F1 feeder series, Formula 2. Finally, at the late age of 29, he was spotted by Teddy Yip’s Theodore Racing and given an F1 drive for the 1978 season.
In his second race for the team he won the non-championship BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone. It was a superb performance in a rain-soaked race, beating big name drivers and drawing the attention of the F1 paddock. Unfortunately, the rest of the season was spent driving uncompetitive cars for uncompetitive teams, alternating between Theodore and ATS Racing, and his best championship position was tenth place at Hockenheim. He spent the following three seasons driving for Walter Wolf Racing before transferring to Fittipaldi Automotive when Wolf’s team was taken over by the Brazilian ex-champion’s team. Despite mediocre championship performances in these seasons, Rosberg impressed enough to be offered a drive as the number two driver at Williams, replacing the retiring Alan Jones and partnering Carlos Reutemann for the 1982 season.
That season was one where no single driver or team dominated – several drivers managed to win two races, but no one succeeding in winning more. Rosberg only one one race, the Swiss Grand Prix at Dijon, but by sheer consistency he ended the season as world drivers’ champion, beating his nearest rival, Didier Pironi, by five points. The only other world champion to have only won one race during their championship season was Mike Hawthorn in 1958. Rosberg’s championship win was also significant because it was the last championship won using the power of the legendary Cosworth DFV engine. The eighties were, thereafter, to become the turbo era.
Unfortunately, the 1982 season is also remembered for the death of Gilles Villeneuve – during qualifying at Zolder in Belgium – and for the accident in the German GP practice session that shattered Didier Pironi’s legs, ending his career.
After winning the championship, Rosberg remained with Williams until 1985, but a combination of an uncompetitive chassis and an unreliable Honda turbo engine meant that a third place championship finish in 1985 was the nearest he got to winning a second title. Memorably, as the Honda engine finally started performing, he delivered a pole lap at Silverstone – at 160.9 mph (258.9 km/h) – that was to remain the fastest in F1 for over sixteen years. Unfortunately, Rosberg had already signed for McLaren for the 1986 season and so was unable to take advantage of the Williams Honda dominance of the ‘86 and ‘87 seasons.
His one season at McLaren was not a great success and he was out driven in the difficult MP4/2C by team mate Alain Prost. The death in testing of his great friend Elio de Angelis at the Paul Ricard circuit in France affected him badly and at the end of the season Rosberg retired from F1 after just nine seasons.
He tried his hand at sports car racing, driving for Peugeot, and enjoyed a stint in the DTM series before retiring from motorsport in 1995. He was heavily involved in the career of fellow Finnish driver and two time world champion Mika Häkkinen, as both sponsor and manager, and was Nico’s manager until 2008.
Rosberg’s career record of one championship, five wins and twelve other podium finishes is not a true reflection of his talents as a driver; he was hampered by uncompetitive cars and, by his own admission, a premature retirement. For, when given the opportunity to shine, Rosberg proved that he was a great driver and a deserving world champion.