A chance encounter in a busy airport may have helped German driver Nico Rosberg put the 2014 season start in perspective, writes Tim Collings.
Nico Rosberg may call upon the calm inspiration of the Dalai Lama to soothe frayed nerves in the garage of pre-season favourites Mercedes this weekend as his team make final preparations for Sunday's 2014 Formula 1® Rolex Australian Grand Prix.
The 28-year-old German and team-mate Briton Lewis Hamilton, 29, arrived in Melbourne this week as the most hotly-tipped pairing for victory at Albert Park, thanks to their strong showing and reliability in pre-season testing ahead of the start of a new formula for the sport.
Rival team boss Christian Horner of four-time champions Red Bull, who languished among the also-rans in the phoney war in Bahrain, was even quoted saying he expected to see Rosberg's Mercedes win by two laps.
It was an expectation that the son of 1982 champion Keke Rosberg, the original 'flying Finn', did nothing to welcome on Wednesday when he took part in a publicity penalty shootout with Melbourne Victory soccer club ahead of their Asian Champions League match against Jeonbuk Motors.
"It's way too early to talk about anything like that," said the urbane Monaco-based driver with a shrug. "You know, Red Bull like to play things down. They were nowhere in pre-season testing last year and then look what happened..."
Calm and intelligent, Rosberg was unflustered by the media circus that goes with being a top competitor in a major global sport.
But, he admitted, a chance meeting with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet in Frankfurt airport could help him harness more of the calmness required to meet multiple challenges as F1 strides into a more technological and fuel-saving era.
"It was very cool to meet him and he is an inspirational person," said Rosberg. Almost immediately, he was asked about his rivalry with Hamilton, a man whose passions run deep and raw.
"It is always tough against Lewis, he is very, very quick," he said. "It is a challenge, but that is what this is all about.... Yes, we have some moments, we fight and we disagree. But then it is usually all over an hour later... Or maybe a week!"
Having slipped on a pair of turquoise soccer boots with dazzling orange laces, it was difficult for Rosberg to hide in a crowd as he joined Victory's former captain Adrian Leijer and Brazilian midfielder Guy Finkler in a brief flurry of spot-kicks to please a small posse of television crews and photographers at a windy Gosch's Paddock.
After blazing his opening effort high over the bar of a makeshift portable goal standing between two Australian footy fields, Rosberg showed the concentration and competitive instinct that has enabled him to become a serious contender for the drivers' championship.
"The most important thing is reliability, to do a lot of laps and sort out the issues to make sure we can finish," he explained, referring to Sunday's race. "The team is making a fantastic effort. I saw them in the factory and they have been working through the night to make sure it all comes together. For everyone, reliability is the key challenge this year."
New engines, new cars and many new regulations have created a sense of anticipation that Red Bull's four-year supremacy may be about to end as they, and other teams supplied with Renault power, have struggled to match the pace and consistency of the Mercedes-powered outfits.
Rosberg accepted this might produce some unexpected results in the early-season races, but stressed that he was not counting himself as a favourite.
"We don’t know what will happen. We can't forecast anything. We will know more in four days’ time, on Sunday," he said. "I think that a lot of cars will stop and that more will break down before the green light. So they won't even start. Nobody knows. This is the big challenge this year."
Quietly-spoken, almost under-stated, Rosberg avoided all enticements to strut his stuff or complain.
The new cars, he said, were very similar to drive to those of last season, but slower. Fuel, he said, will be a critical feature in the racing as the teams strive to survive on 100 kilos per race.
"Formula One has always been about good strategy and set-up," he said. "But fuel conservation this year will be very important. It is around one-third down from last year and it will mean we have to ease off the throttle sometimes at the end of the straight. We are motivated for this and I think we are 100 per cent ready, but we will see!"
"This has made Formula One more contemporary," he added. "It is a greener sport now, more in tune with the times. That is one side and I can understand that, but there is another. And that is that the cars are slower… and that I don't like!"