Byline: MOIRA GORDON
NICO Rosberg is polite about it but as he nudged nearer and nearer his debut Grand Prix in Bahrain last week, there was a suggestion that it was all becoming a bit tiresome. Not the questions about his hopes, his fears, the nerves or the targets for the forthcoming season, but the constant queries about his father. But that's what happens when newcomers arrive with promise and a family pedigree.
Keke Rosberg, the Finnish World Champion 24 years ago, provides the latter but it's his 20-year-old son who serves up the former. And if it was the older of this pair who snaffled up so much press conference time before that first race, what happened during it means the focus has now shifted.
Starting 12th on the grid in the season opener, the Williams rookie was relegated to the back of the field thanks to a mistake at Turn One, where he collided with fellow German Nick Heidfeld (Nico was born in his mother Sina's homeland), and, having lost his front wing, had to pit for repairs.
That cost him a staggering 45 seconds but, as the car was put back together, Rosberg concentrated on reassembling dented confidence and returned to the track to complete the race with the kind of aplomb which has consigned chatter about his famous father to second position during press conferences this week.
It was the kind of drive that forces the rest to sit up and take notice. Twice he posted the fastest lap time and in the end he negotiated the men in front of him to finish seventh and take two World Championship points in his very first race. Impressive in its own right but on the back of that initial mistake, it was the mark of real quality.
"You can't win races if you fall at the first corner but to get the fastest lap in your first race, you can't ask for more," said his father, who has been fruitlessly trying to keep a low profile, aware that his name may have been a door-opener in the past but could now become a burden.
Nico knows the family name has helped get sponsors and media attention and he knows that his first contact with the Williams team came courtesy of his father, who also drove for the team. But with every ying there is a yang. "On the other hand, it has been a bit of a burden in that people are always comparing me to my father - in every interview, his name will come up so that gets a bit heavy. But it's a great thing to have such a father. He can give me a lot of great advice and he is a very clever person. He has been through a lot. He can give me help - but not in the car because you can't make someone go fast. Either you have the talent or you don't." And Bahrain proved he has the speed and a maturity that belies his tender years.
Before the race he had claimed that the only way to gain the respect of his peers was with "your speed and your racing ability. It won't be a problem. I'm very confident I won't be a pushover. I have an understanding of the car and I can push like hell now." He also has the guts and strength of character to impress the others in the pitlane.
They will certainly appreciate his honesty. Confident enough to hold his hands up to his opening lap error, claiming "it was my mistake. Maybe I was trying too hard," he said afterwards. He apologised and moved on. Lessons had been learned. "It put me right at the back and I was a bit disappointed with myself so I just went for it. I really enjoyed fighting my way up, particularly battling with David Coulthard. The final result - seventh place and the fastest lap of the race - is more than I could have hoped for in my first outing."
It was more than anyone expected, including Williams' technical director Sam Michael, who knows just how precious a talent they have in their paddock. The reigning GP2 champion, who first started racing karts at 11 but really arrived on the radar as a 17-year-old when he became the youngest person ever to drive an F1 car, when he did his first test for Williams, in 2002.
"For his first race, it was a fantastic result," said Michael. "He made a mistake but without that he would have been on the podium." Whether the car will allow that as the season progresses is one thing but few now doubt he has the talent, if the car provides enough power and the new gearbox proves reliable.
The demands on his time and the new high-profile existence will be another component he has to contend with. No longer just an avenue onto memory lane, he has emerged as a man in the fast lane and a contender in his own right. In the build up to Bahrain he had days where hours were set aside for the kind of commitments that sweeten the media and, more importantly, the sponsors but his practice schedule remained pretty-much unhampered. This week that hasn't proved the case.
As a newcomer to the Sepang track, which plays hosts to today's Malaysian Grand Prix, he has been hamstrung by side issues. "By the time I get out to Malaysia, I won't have much time to train as I would like and I have a marketing commitment for Oris on Wednesday," he lamented early last week. "I haven't driven at Sepang before so it's a new circuit and I'm going to have to learn quickly. I have driven it on the simulator though and, from that, I think it's going to be a track I'll enjoy. I It should be a good race for us."
The lack of 'real' knowledge of the track has been addressed by doing more practice laps this weekend than he did in Bahrain and another virtuoso performance today will really get tongues wagging. And it's not beyond him. Paid a fraction of the money team-mate Mark Webber is on (the youngster will bank GBP 500,000, while the Aussie reportedly takes home GBP 2.5m for the season), he is a lad with a searing determination. Offered a place at Imperial College London to do a degree in aerodynamics, the 20-year-old decided not to accept, despite the fact he would have been able to combine the studies and the driving. "It wasn't really a difficult decision," he explained. "If I do something I do it properly. At the time, I had just won the Formula BMW Series and knew I had the ability to race at the top, so I chose to concentrate on that."
And he is definitely showing every sign of doing it properly. And if he can build on that Bahrain performance it will be another step closer to emerging from his father's shadow.