Less than a week after securing the World Driver’s Championship title, Nico Rosberg shocked much of the Formula One paddock by announcing his retirement from the sport.
Citing a desire to spend more time with his family, Rosberg confirmed on Friday that he would not be driving in the 2017 Formula One Season to defend his title. Having achieved his childhood dream, he stated in a Twitter video addressed to his followers that he was ‘not willing’ to repeat the commitment that was required for his 2016 championship-winning season and that stopping racing ‘just feels completely right’.
His Mercedes team-mate and lifelong friend and rival Lewis Hamilton, however, was not surprised by Rosberg’s retirement, stating at the FIA Prize Giving in Vienna that he understood the German’s reasoning but would miss having him in the team.
The last-minute decision has left the Mercedes team in a difficult position. With most of the teams and drivers in the paddock having already secured contracts for the 2017 season, it would initially seem that the world champions might have a tough job securing a driver to partner Hamilton next year.
However, it is no secret that a seat in the team that has dominated Formula One since the rules changes in 2014 is coveted by nearly every driver in motorsport. Between eager, young stars hoping to propel their careers forwards and experienced, world-champion drivers currently frustrated by underperforming teams, Mercedes have an almost completely free choice when it comes to their decision; even the tightest contract can be broken if there is enough will to do so.
So, with that said, let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of their options, from the realistic to the ridiculous (yet somehow still plausible).
Pascal Wehrlein – The Inheritor
Pros: Wehrlein is already a part of the Mercedes family, and is thus a well-known quantity to the team. He has proven himself to be more than capable behind the wheel of the 2016 Manor-Mercedes, in particular against his original team-mate Rio Haryanto, and has impressed numerous times in recent years whilst testing the works Mercedes car. He is not currently bound to a team, meaning there will be no need to pay out to break a contract.
Cons: Whether or not Mercedes are dominant next year, they will likely want someone who can keep up with Hamilton: someone to keep the championship alive in the event it is once again solely contested by the two Mercedes drivers, and someone who will be just as strong against rival teams if any manage to catch up. Despite being highly rated, the question is whether a driver with only one year of experience in Formula One can achieve this.
That said, we have seen young drivers come into the sport and instantly match their older peers a number of times in recent memory, including the arrival of one Lewis Hamilton in 2007 to partner Fernando Alonso at McLaren. If Mercedes do indeed go with a young driver, they will be hoping not to repeat the mistakes of that season.
Esteban Ocon – The Pretender
Pros: Like Wehrlein, Ocon is another young driver who is part of the Mercedes family. Despite spending only half of last season behind the wheel of a Formula One car, he quickly got up to speed and started matching Manor team-mate Wehrlein, who was presumed to be his rival for any future openings at Mercedes. By the end of the season, his performances improved, beating Wehrlein in the last two races and leapfrogging him by securing a seat at Force India for 2017.
Cons: At this moment, Ocon is signed up to race for Force India, though it is likely that this was part of a deal with Mercedes anyway. Moreover, his performance against his currently out-of-contract team-mate were not as impressive in reality as on paper; Wehrlein often seemed stronger over an entire weekend, even if the results did not necessarily reflect this.
Sebastian Vettel – The Frustrated
Pros: Between them, Hamilton and Vettel have had a near-total monopoly on driver’s championship wins since 2008, the only exceptions being the outgoing Jenson Button’s 2009 title and Rosberg’s win this year. Without doubt, this would be the strongest line-up on the grid, and a title fight between the two would be scintillating and highly marketable. Moreover, whilst Vettel has agreeably toed the Ferrari team line this year, his radio comments, body language and even driving have shown a driver frustrated by a lack of success and performance from his car, perhaps worried that his career will stall in the same way that Fernando Alonso’s did at the very same team.
Cons: Even if Vettel decides that Mercedes will give him a better chance at returning to the top, Ferrari will likely fight tooth-and-nail to keep him on side, making any acquisition by Mercedes a more than difficult one. Moreover, Vettel has recently seemed to quickly lose morale when in an uncompetitive car (see both 2014 and 2016); if Mercedes are not leading the field as they are expected to do next year, will they find themselves with an underperforming Vettel?
Fernando Alonso – The (More) Frustrated
Pros: If the idea of partnering Hamilton and Vettel is exciting, then the resumption of the 2007 battle between Hamilton and Alonso is doubly so. Again, this would be the strongest line-up on the grid, and the marketing potential of a title fight between the two is astronomic. And if Vettel is frustrated after 3 seasons of not winning a championship, then Alonso is triply so, last doing so 10 years ago and having numerous uncompetitive cars since then. Whilst McLaren may be very reticent to let him go, his leaving has been a possible reality since the moment he joined the team, and the team have Jenson Button waiting in the wings just in case he does.
Cons: If the team struggled to keep the Hamilton-Rosberg partnership in check, how will they deal with Hamilton and Alonso? Though they have obviously gained huge respect for each other since then, the memory of that season must surely remain in both drivers’ – as well as the rest of the paddock’s – minds.
Max Verstappen – The Prodigy
Pros: Few drivers have garnered as much attention as Max Verstappen in the past few years, setting the record for the youngest Formula One driver ever and winning his first race upon ascending to Red-Bull Racing. He has proven to both be extremely quick and have excellent race craft, even if he takes a few more risks than necessary at points. Touted by many to be a future world champion, his age would also mean he could stay with the team for a long time, an objective which the team had attempted but failed to achieve back in 2014 when Verstappen first joined the grid.
Cons: Despite his recent Twitter flirtations with Mercedes, would Verstappen really want to leave a Red Bull team that seem to be quickly finding their way again, especially heading into a new set of rules that emphasise aerodynamics? Even if this isn’t Red Bull’s Renaissance, Max’s youth means he can afford to spend more years at a team that, even if it doesn’t dominate, will still be there-or-thereabouts for the foreseeable future. And a Hamilton-Verstappen partnership could prove to be fierier and more uncontrollable than any other on this list…
Daniel Ricciardo – The Ace
Pros: If you can’t have one Red Bull driver, then perhaps try another? Despite the greater attention Verstappen has received, Ricciardo has been doing just as impressive (and arguably more consistent) a job than Verstappen, outscoring him across both the whole 2016 season and in the time they have been team-mates. And let’s not forget his comprehensive outperforming of former World Champion Sebastian Vettel in 2014. Plus, whilst he should be more than able to stay competitive with Hamilton, his generally calm and happy disposition might also make this one of the easier partnerships to control.
Cons: Like Verstappen, Ricciardo may feel he is better off sticking with Red Bull, though he doesn’t have quite the luxury of age that Verstappen does. Other than that, the only other con would be the inevitable resistance from Red Bull to losing one of their strongest drivers.
Carlos Sainz & Daniil Kvyat – The Forgotten & The Forsaken
Pros: You have to feel for these two Toro Rosso drivers. Daniil Kvyat managed to outscore Ricciardo in his only full season at Red Bull before being demoted to Toro Rosso only a few races into 2016, and though Sainz was comprehensively beaten by Verstappen on paper in 2015, the actual story is obscured by a gamut of bad luck resulting primarily from an unreliable Renault powertrain. Both drivers are as deserving of a seat at the parent Red Bull outfit as the current lineup, but unfortunately there are only two seats available. Mercedes might decide to capitalise on their stagnating careers and steal one of these overlooked young talents from Red Bull’s family. The team will doubtless be more amicable in letting either go, as they will be more interested in retaining Ricciardo and Verstappen, especially with young drivers like Pierre Gasly waiting in the wings to replace the Toro Rosso drivers.
Cons: Whatever positives you can say about this pair, there is still a reason that they are at the junior rather than senior team. Despite how highly they have been rated at times, there must be some niggling doubt surrounding them; Mercedes surely do not want to recruit a driver who may be seen as second-best.
Valtteri Bottas – The Reliable
Pros: Valtteri Bottas is seen as one of the most consistent, reliable and, on his day, quickest drivers on the grid. A number of strong performances from the start of the hybrid turbo era kept his stock high enough that he was, at one point or another, linked to every top team on the grid. Though his 2016 performances were not as eye-catching as earlier ones, his reputation remains high and his position at Williams provides a strong link to the Mercedes works team – not to mention that Mercedes Head of Motorsport Toto Wolff has been a guiding light throughout the Finn’s career. Much like Ricciardo, Bottas’s cool, calm demeanour would play well off of Hamilton’s fiery passion.
Cons: Bottas, alongside a number of other drivers currently on the grid, falls into an unfortunate generation of drivers; they arrived in Formula One a bit too late and in the wrong teams to follow the successes of the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. On other hand, they were too early to be a part of the new wave of successful young drivers getting a shot with bigger teams like Max Verstappen and Stoffel Vandoorne.
Despite numerous flirtations with top teams, they have been unable to capitalise when their stock was at its highest and unfortunately, numerous seasons stuck in the mid-field will cause interest in you to drop no matter how well you perform. Despite being more than capable, Bottas is simply not at the forefront of peoples’ minds as he was just a year or two ago.
Jenson Button – The Retired
Pros: Yes, I’m serious. Though Button has cited frustrations with living by the Formula One schedule as his primary reason for taking a sabbatical year (and potentially retiring), surely part of his weariness stems from six years of driving for an underperforming McLaren team. If he thinks he has a realistic chance of winning the championship again (as would be the case at Mercedes) he might well be tempted to return to the grid. Despite technically being contracted to McLaren for next season, his contract will likely be one of the easiest to break as well, given he would not be racing for the team anyway. If Mercedes want to recruit another world champion to partner Hamilton, then Button might well be the easiest to acquire.
Furthermore, Button has history with the Brackley-based team, having raced for them under the guise of BAR, Honda and of course in his championship-winning season as Brawn GP. Plus, Button is well known by Mercedes Technical Director Paddy Lowe from their time at McLaren, as well as Lewis Hamilton, whom he has shown to work effectively alongside (for the most part). His performances against his fellow Brit are nothing to be sniffed at, either: Button is one of only two drivers to have beaten Hamilton across a single season as team-mates (the other being the outgoing Rosberg) and the only driver to outscore him across their entire time as team-mates.
Cons: How do you convince a man to come back from retirement, especially just months after the decision to do so is made? Button may be tempted to return and fight for another championship, but will the call of a different pace of life outweigh that?
Kimi Räikkönen is the only other World Champion still on the grid, and though he enjoyed something of a resurgence in the latter stages of 2016, his stock remains lower than it did around his championship-winning season or during his time at Lotus.
Sergio Perez, Nico Hülkenberg and Romain Grosjean are all of the same, unfortunate generation of drivers as Valtteri Bottas. Of the three, Sergio Perez may be most likely to inherit the Mercedes drive due to Force India’s links to the team and the fact his repute has consistently risen since his time at McLaren due to consistent and occasionally brilliant drives at an over-performing midfield team.
In truth, Hülkenberg and Grosjean will likely be hedging their bets with their current projects and hoping their links to factory teams will pay off after a number of solid but inconspicuous seasons; the former will be hoping that Renault can make the improvements required on the chassis side to catch the likes of Red Bull, whilst the latter will be hoping an opening at Ferrari will be opening up soon.
Other current Formula One drivers have simply been unable to garner enough attention for their careers, whether through bad performance or bad luck. Kevin Magnussen, in particular, finds himself in a tricky situation as his unceremonious dropping from McLaren two years ago still looms over his career. He will be hoping that he will enjoy a similar renaissance to the man he initially replaced, Sergio Perez, in his time alongside Grosjean at Haas.
Mercedes may choose to look elsewhere, of course. Formula E, GP2 and Formula 3 have a wealth of talent between them, but it is quite likely that Mercedes may find the drivers there to be too young and inexperienced or too old and past their prime (especially when it comes to the ex-F1 drivers in Formula E).
It’s probably also worth mentioning names like Rio Haryanto, who, despite not attracting much attention based on their driving performances, are solid enough to be a decent number two driver to Hamilton and might bring a healthy pay packet in the form of sponsors along with them.
Nico Rosberg – Is The Story Over?
What next for Nico Rosberg? Some have speculated that he may join another championship and race there. However, given the nature of his reasons for leaving Formula One, this is doubtful. Far more likely, he will retire from racing completely.
This is all assuming that Rosberg will not turn around and change his mind, whether due to greater consideration or persuasion from Mercedes. Though the idea of him un-retiring may sound ridiculous, so did the idea of him retiring in the first place. With all the surprises of the past year, I would not discount the possibility that Nico Rosberg might yet partner Lewis Hamilton in 2017.