Will Rosberg’s gamble pay off?

williams toyota fw31 01The casinos of Monte Carlo would appear to have rubbed off on Monegasque youngster Nico Rosberg.

The Williams driver won a televised poker tournament in Italy last month seeing off competition from Formula One’s established card players Robert Kubica, Giancarlo Fisichella, Adrian Sutil and former Ferrari driver Eddie Irvine.

Rosberg’s success at the poker table may just give him the courage he needs to pull off the biggest gamble of his career: a long-term commitment to the Williams F1 team. The German driver has long been touted as one of the great stars of the future having stunned the paddock with his raw speed on more than one occasion. His podium successes in Melbourne and Singapore last year were notable highlights. However Rosberg’s talent has been marred by a car that has generally underperformed as each season has progressed, largely due to Williams’ considerably smaller budget.

Rosberg has admitted to this frustration and has seemingly laid his cards on the table by declaring: “I hope that I am going to have the car to have good success this year, it’s very possible. If not, then I need to see because by 2010 at the latest I really want to be in a top car.”

This is a definite signal from Rosberg that his problems last year lay with the car rather than his own driving ability. Both Rosberg and indeed Williams may approach this season wanting to gamble everything they have in the win or die casino that is modern day Formula One. Rosberg will be wanting to secure his first win and push the Williams FW31 to its limit both to prove his ability to the team and indeed other watching manufacturers.

Williams meanwhile will be keen to use the sweeping rule changes in 2009 to develop a car that keeps Rosberg within the team.

Indeed, team boss Frank Williams is adamant that his team will be closer to the front-runners this year. Williams are among a handful of teams to have thrown the bulk of their resources behind their new car early on in 2008 to get a jump on the new rules governing car design.

“This could be our most important season for a decade,” said Williams ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in two weeks time. “The rule changes give Williams F1 a chance to re-establish itself.”

Already the newly formed Brawn GP, who turned their attention to this year s car even earlier than Williams, have gained an early advantage setting a searing pace in pre-season testing, while the 2008 title contenders McLaren and Ferrari, who were forced to develop their 2008 cars right down to the wire in Brazil, appear to be struggling. The former have uncovered problems with their new car after running a new aerodynamic package, while Ferrari have been hampered by a string of mechanical gremlins.

This could provide teams such as Williams an opportunity to leap up the grid in 2009. Indeed, while Frank Williams is refusing to predict where his team will be in Melbourne, he is confident that his drivers, Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima, will be right up there.

“It s impossible to say where we ll be in Melbourne,” he adds, “but I m cautiously optimistic that we ll make a step-up in performance this year. To be close to the top three would be a big step forward in year one.”

Nico Rosberg is adamant that sacrificing performance in the latter half of last year to focus on the FW31 will pay dividends.

“The last upgrade on the FW30 was for the German Grand Prix,” said the German. “It made it tough at the latter races of the season, knowing that we were going to find it hard to be competitive, but we had to do what was right for the long-term interests of the team.”

2009 may well be a make or break year for Rosberg’s long term future at Williams. He has sentimental reasons for staying at Williams; his father Keke Rosberg won the 1982 championship with Williams. However the ambitious Nico knows that what matters is that Keke became champion, not that he did so with Williams. Unless Rosberg scores both highly and consistently this season he may find that 2009 is his biggest gamble yet.