Nico Rosberg lost a race and won a Formula One world championship on Sunday and a weight of history slipped from his shoulders as the tears flowed and a night of partying stretched out before him.
From their days together as teenage karting team mates to mature Mercedes rivals, Britain’s Lewis Hamilton has been the implacable rival against whom the German has measured himself and come short.
For two years running he had fought the champion for the title and failed, with some suggesting 2016 could be a last throw of the dice.
“It feels like I’ve been racing him forever and always he’s just managed to edge me out and get the title even when we were small in go-karts,” Rosberg told reporters in a news conference punctuated by emotional pauses.
“He’s just an amazing driver and of course one of the best in history so it’s unbelievably special to beat him because the level is so high and that makes this even more…so much more satisfying for me.
“And I took the World Championship away from him which is a phenomenal feeling.”
Rosberg has been at Mercedes since 2010, first as team mate to compatriot and seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher and then, from 2013, Hamilton.
While he finished above Schumacher in their three seasons together, there were some who suggested that was more a reflection on the older German’s waning powers.
Hamilton then scored more points than him in every season, including taking the championship in 2014 and 2015, but Rosberg never gave up or lost faith in his own abilities.
The turning point, as he explained on Sunday in a floodlit Abu Dhabi paddock, came in Texas last October on the day Hamilton clinched his third title and tossed a cap in his team mate’s direction post-race.
Rosberg, who had gifted Hamilton victory with a late error, petulantly flung it back.
“Austin was a horrible experience for me and I really spent two days just on my own thinking and I said I didn’t ever want to experience that again,” he confessed.
“And then I went and won the next seven races on the trot, so for sure it was a big moment for me and one of the key moments for being here today.”
Rosberg ends the season with nine wins to Hamilton’s 10, and with the Briton also ahead on pole positions, but it is the points that matter. In the end, after 21 races, he scored five more.
Hamilton’s fans will say the German has been blessed with far better reliability but Rosberg has also displayed a remarkable calm and consistency.
“Everybody does his own way; for me that feels best and I’ve really learned to focus hard. It takes a lot of sacrifice also to stay so focused during a whole year. For sure that helped,” he said.
Now, for the first time in months, he could relax.
“I’m sure it’s going to be pretty crazy now for the next few days but I look forward to all that, it’s going to be special.