What now for Mercedes – who will replace Nico Rosberg?
Nico Rosberg’s surprise retirement announcement has, in the German’s own words, put Mercedes in a ‘tough position’ from a driver line-up point of view. The question now is, who will replace the newly-crowned world champion as Lewis Hamilton’s team mate in 2017 and beyond? We cast an eye over the potential candidates…
As a Mercedes junior driver, Wehrlein has long been groomed for a seat at the top team, and impressed mightily in his rookie season with Manor – especially in Austria where he qualified 12th and finished 10th. Disappointed to have been passed over for the vacant seat at Force India in favour of less experienced Manor team mate Esteban Ocon, could Wehrlein be the man to fill the void for the Silver Arrows? The team certainly know him well, with the 22-year-old having completed more than 10 days of testing with the team, including plenty of Pirelli’s 2017 tyre development programme that Mercedes participated in. The only question mark against him would be his experience. In a year of great technical change would Mercedes prefer a driver with more races under his belt? And how would someone so inexperienced fare alongside a three-time world champion?
Pascal Wehrlein (GER) Mercedes AMG F1 W05 at Formula One Testing, Day One, Silverstone, England, Tuesday 12 July 2016. © Sutton Images
The Frenchman has only just inked a deal to join Force India for 2017, but as a member of the Silver Arrows stable, Mercedes could conceivably negotiate his release should they wish. However, though highly regarded, Ocon has even less F1 experience than Wehrlein, and given the strength of their main competitors’ line-ups, can the Brackley-based team really afford to carry a near-rookie?
Esteban Ocon (FRA) Manor Racing and Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes AMG F1 on the drivers parade at Formula One World Championship, Rd18, United States Grand Prix, Race, Circuit of the Americas, Austin, Texas, USA, Sunday 23 October 2016. © Sutton Images
The Finn is another driver who is already under contract for next year, with the Mercedes-powered Williams team, but his close connections to Mercedes chief Toto Wolff (not to mention his experience and known ability behind the wheel) make him a potential contender to replace Rosberg. Wolff has been part of Bottas’ management team for some time, and is a known admirer – but that doesn’t change the fact that Williams would be hugely reluctant to part ways with a driver who, in the words of deputy team principal Claire Williams, has “played a pivotal role in the team’s turnaround since 2014”.
Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 and Valtteri Bottas (FIN) Williams in the Press Conference at Formula One World Championship, Rd7, Canadian Grand Prix, Race, Montreal, Canada, Sunday 12 June 2016. © Sutton Images
The media – and the bookmakers – have been keen to hype the possibility of Sebastian Vettel jumping ship from Ferrari, but though it’s no secret that it’s been a tense season at the Scuderia, the German still has a year to run on his Maranello contract – as he pointed out to the press at a team event over the weekend.
Similarly Fernando Alonso would be a popular fan choice. He has one year left on his deal with McLaren, but is there any room for negotiation in his contract, and even if there were, would the Spaniard move and would Mercedes want to re-ignite the combustible Hamilton/Alonso partnership of 2007?
And another Spaniard, Carlos Sainz, is highly rated. Again Red Bull have him tied to a long-term contract, though Sainz has made no secret of his ambitions, ever since former Toro Rosso team mate Max Verstappen was promoted to Red Bull Racing.
One thing’s for sure, having taken a drivers’ and constructors’ double for the past three seasons, there will be no shortage of interest in the spare seat. But with all of the most experienced drivers already tied down, Mercedes will find it extremely tough to find a driver approaching Rosberg’s calibre.
World Champion Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes AMG F1 celebrates on the podium with Sebastian Vettel (GER) Ferrari and Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 at Formula One World Championship, Rd21, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Race, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Sunday 27 November 2016. © Sutton Images