Nico Rosberg shakes the addiction to glory that comes with a dark side
Professional athletes lead a crazily short and often lucrative working life, over within a decade or so of its beginning, wreathed in success or disappointment. Memories of glory, often embellished, are revived in middle age for nostalgia or for reheating in ill-advised comebacks.
It is unlikely the 31-year-old . Nor will the 26-year-old Nick Blackwell – but for wholly different reasons. , was still recovering in hospital on Friday from his father, John, described as silly when Rosberg, newly crowned as Formula One champion, announced he was looking forward to a quieter life with his family.
Blackwell got into his sport through unlicensed boxing at 16, rather than the traditional amateur route, and even coming close to death after his fight with Chris Eubank Jr in March did not seem to quell his spirit. It is rumoured he thought about applying for an Irish boxing licence. His father told the Wiltshire Times on Friday: “It’s like an addiction for him. Professional athletes like Nick find it impossible to stop doing what they love.”
Unlike the rest of us, these unique human beings define their sense of self-worth by their athletic talent and hunger for victory. Few experience the grind of mundane living. Every moment promises – but does not always deliver – the applause and the thrills that ordinary life cannot provide.
When Roger Federer is asked why he still plays tennis at 35, having won 17 majors, he cites his love of the game, but it is the flickering desire to claim another big title that really drives him on. Like Blackwell, he is addicted. Unlike Blackwell, he does not risk death when taking part.
Nor does the extraordinary Stanislaw Kowalski, the 106-year-old Polish athlete who can still throw a discus more than 24 feet but has nobody his age to compete against. Kowalksi is an innocent aberration. and motor racing, however, are sports that require participants to wilfully disregard notions of safety. They stir primal instincts that few other sports can match.
Keke Rosberg was 29 when he began his Formula One career, two years younger than when Nico retired from the sport. . It took Keke two years to get on the podium and another two to win the championship, in 1982, the year Gilles Villeneuve died at Zolder. By the time he retired in 1986, aged 37, Rosberg had won five races from 114 starts, compared with Nico’s 23 from 206 races, but victories were spread more thinly across the starting grid in the 80s, an era of less certainty in many ways.
While Nico walked away from the sport with a free heart, his father left in markedly different circumstances and mood. One of his closest friends in , Elio de Angelis, crashed and died during testing in France in the summer of 1986 and the Finn decided he could not carry on, although it is said he later considered a comeback.
The spectre of death haunted motor racing far more frequently then and drivers handled the danger with a mixture of trepidation, bloody-mindedness and bravado that had become part of their shield. When Roland Ratzenberger died in practice at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in 1994, Ayrton Senna left the scene of the crash in tears but, when the F1 neurologist Professor Sid Watkins suggested he should leave the sport having already won three titles and go fishing instead the Brazilian said: “There are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit [racing], I have to go on.”
However, Maurice Hamilton, The Observer’s former motor racing correspondent, revealed in his excellent biography of Senna that the driver had that Saturday night told his boss, Frank Williams, he did not want to race again. Within 24 hours, Senna was dead, after crashing on lap seven, with Michael Schumacher on his tail. The German won the championship and dedicated it to Senna. “Nobody remembers Roland,” Schumacher told me years later. In the 21 years since Imola, has been the only other F1 fatality.
Blackwell was not the only boxer in a hospital bed this week. It is two weeks since the 34-year-old German after losing over 12 rounds to George Groves. On Friday, his team said: “Our team captain Eddy is still in London at the hospital. His condition is referred to by doctors as stable and his organs are working normally.”
For Blackwell and Gutknecht, retirement is not an option. It is a fait accompli.