Some people talk about athletes exuding a presence, an aura, when they walk into a room. I've never bought into that, but Nico Rosberg does have a fat-free, lean tautness that's the physical hallmark of his trade as enters the lobby of the Mercedes AMG F1 plant in Brackley, England, where we begin our chat before being ushered toward a waiting S-class.
It's today's interview location, taking us to the Mercedes engine facility in Brixworth, where Rosberg is needed for a TV feature. It's 30 miles away. Far enough, I'm hoping, for him to tell me what it takes to make a Formula 1 car go as quickly as possible. To explain to me what techniques will get the best out of it. Not that you or I could do it, you understand – but in the way that a surgeon might explain what procedure he has just accomplished, I'm hoping to comprehend the theory.
So, Nico, can you disseminate the skills you've learned in a 17-year karting and open-wheel racing career into less than an hour, please? I'm not sure that he thinks he can but, bless him, he's prepared to have a go.
I start by asking what the driving environment is like and what he can see from the cockpit. “You can see the top of the tires,” he says. “You can see maybe 20 meters [66ft] ahead, and nothing before that. But you don't notice that because you're traveling so fast.”
The HANS device doesn't restrict your head movement at all, he says. “You can turn your head as much as you want to, but there is quite a blind spot because you can't see a car until very late.”
The pedals are the same size, the brake unassisted and the throttle relatively heavy. The seating position is tight, narrow and leant backward. The steering is direct and fast.
“There's 180 degrees [of lock] one way and the other way, more or less, Rosberg says. “But you never use that, oher than in Monaco. Usually, you're using a little bit – up to 90 degrees both sides.”
And the weight? “You can set it up as you want – you need to keep some heaviness to keep some feel to it, but it's quite light in general. You need feedback through the steering wheel, because it's very sensitive to when you're locking up and turning. There's more feel [than in a good road car] – loads more.”
So what about these corners, then? They're the only thing that separate one driver from another, aren't they? A braking point, Rosberg says, is “literally a specific point. It can be markings on the road, bumps, the 100-meter board, all sorts of things like that.”
Unhelpfully, however, depending on fuel load and tire wear, this point “changes all the time.” Particularly so given the sensitivity of this past season's tires. Rosberg says that even at very high speeds it's possible to lock the wheels under braking, which surprises me.
Nevertheless, he suggests that it's best to hit the unassisted left pedal “very hard.” And while there's a big weight transfer in an F1 car, like a road car “it's not in pitch movement, just in straight-ahead movement. You have to push against the steering wheel hard, otherwise you fall [down] into the seat.”
Braking, Rosberg explains, is the big difference compared with a road car. “In the first part of braking, you hit it as hard as you can. There's so much grip because there's so much downforce. But, then, as you're slowing down, the grip of the car is reducing at the same time. So you have to ease off the brakes to get maximum deceleration.”
Do F1 drivers trail the brakes into the corner, gradually easing them off even as they turn? “Yeah, a lot. All the way to the point where you go onto the throttle, you're holding [the brakes] in,” Rosberg says.
However, this season's tires, noted for a wear rate that makes racing exciting rather than for their durability, don't always like doing that. “If you steer and brake, it's a longitudinal deceleration and a lateral acceleration. It can easily overload the front tires,” he explains.
Then you're at the apex. “We accelerate at the apex all the time,” says Rosberg. “You have to be very careful feeding the throttle. And as soon as you feel the rear going, you have to wait again.”
Is any lateral slip advantageous? “Yeah, yeah, of course,” he says. “You just need to find the right balance. There comes a point where you lose too much, so it's finding the right amount.”
Does that mean a neutral steer point, where the steering wheel is straight and the car is effectively slipping across the track? “That's the fastest way to drive,” says Rosberg. “It's like the rally guys: always driving on the rear. Because, with understeer, you have to wait and wait and wait and wait… until the car drives around the corner. Whereas with oversteer… it's just the fastest way.”
On top of that theory, “you always have little secrets everywhere, definitely,” says Rosberg. “And it's very small things. Often one driver is finding it here, and the other is finding it there, and you look at the others and take bits and pieces and try it yourself. There's many, many small pieces happening all the time.”
Which all sounds fine – if, that is, you're driving flat-out to your preferred style. With this season's tires and fuel loads, however, drivers were often not. The tires are “very sensitive,” says Rosberg. “You really have to drive so carefully; don't put any aggressive steering inputs into it because you lose time straight away.
“That's a very recent thing. It didn't used to be like that; you used to be able to just push and drive fast.”
So, er, is driving an F1 car fun?
“Oh yeah for sure, it's amazing!” enthuses Rosberg. “Especially the qualifying lap, when you're low on fuel and you can go for all the limits. Because nowadays you can't do the push, flat-out [all the time], so it's different. But for qualifying you can go flat-out. And as Mario Andretti said, if it all feels under control, you're not going fast enough.”
• Matt Prior is the Road Test Editor for AUTOCAR magazine.