Needing to finish on the podium to guarantee his first drivers’ title and deny Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton, Rosberg came home second behind the Briton in a tense climax to the race at the Yas Marina Circuit on Sunday.
Leading the race from start to finish, Hamilton slowed the pace down in the latter stages, against the wishes of his Mercedes team, enabling a chasing pack led by Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen to catch up with second-placed Rosberg.
Hamilton needed his great rival to finish fourth or lower for him to retain the title, but Rosberg held firm — fending off an advancing Vettel in the final three laps of the race with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen not far behind in fourth.
For Rosberg, who has played second fiddle to Hamilton over the past two seasons, a first world title was rich reward for his perseverance.
The German won the opening four races of the season to open up a 43-point lead over Hamilton, only for the Briton to fight back — by the summer break, Hamilton had turned the deficit into a 19-point lead.
When the drivers returned for part two in September, Rosberg was quickest out of the blocks, winning the first three races and then the Japanese Grand Prix to close in on the title, only for Hamilton to mount a valiant late charge by winning the last four races of the season.
There were celebrations for Rosberg on the podium but also palpable relief as he reflected on emulating his father, Keke Rosberg who won his only world title in 1982.
“Those last few laps were not enjoyable,” Rosberg said before paying tribute to his wife, Vivian and one-year-old daughter Alaia for their support.
“I’m very, very proud to have done the same feat as my father — it will be exciting to see him,” he added.
Only one other family in F1 can boast father and son world champions — in 1996, Briton’s Damon Hill followed in the footsteps of his two-time world champion father Graham (1962 and 1968).
For Rosberg, it was also moment to savor after years of coming off second best to Hamilton — dating back to their childhood days racing go-karts.
“I’ve been racing him forever and always he’s just managed to edge me out of the title even when we were small in go-karts,” Rosberg told reporters.
“He’s just an amazing driver and one of the best in history. It’s unbelievably special to beat him because his level is so high and that makes (winning the world title) so much more satisfying … and I took the world championship away from him. It’s just phenomenal.”
Hamilton, meanwhile, defended his tactic of not always racing at full speed during Sunday’s decider.
“I tried to help myself because I wasn’t getting any help anywhere else,” Hamilton told reporters.
“Fortunately, I didn’t put Nico or anyone in harm’s way, didn’t do the team any damage — we still got a one-two — so everyone should be happy and I think I did everything I could within fair reason.”
While the Briton didn’t win the title, he ended up with 10 wins to Rosberg’s nine in 2016, taking his career total to 53 victories — only second to Michael Schumacher’s tally of 91.
Button and Massa bow out
There was no fairytale ending for Jenson Button, who was competing in his 305th and probably last grand prix.
A right front suspension failure in the opening stages ended the McLaren driver’s race on lap 12, bringing the curtain down on the 2009 world champion’s long and distinguished F1 career.
“I had a failure on the front right. It’s so unusual for us to have a failure. But I don’t really care. It doesn’t change my feeling about ending my career. I’m very content,” Button told UK broadcaster Channel 4 following his exit from the race.
Brazil’s Felipe Massa, meanwhile, had a slightly better final day at the office, coming home ninth in his 250th and final F1 race.