In one of the biggest surprises of a very topsy-turvy 2016 Formula One World Championship, the biggest twist hit us after the season concluded. World Drivers’ Champion Nico Rosberg announced his retirement from motorsport less than a week after clinching his championship. While Mercedes had a couple of days notice, it caught the F1 fraternity off guard.
So what happens next at Mercedes and how will that impact the grid going forward?
Rosberg announced his retirement on Facebook prior to the FIA championship ceremony last week and F1 hasn’t stopped reeling since the announcement.
In his announcement, Rosberg mentioned that he was retiring because, “I have climbed my mountain, I am on the peak, so this feels right.” An old interview with a very young Nico Rosberg surfaced shortly after his retirement in which he stated that he wanted to be Formula One World Champion. He’s achieved that goal and is now turning his attention to his family.
By leaving the sport as its top competitor, he becomes the first driver in 23 years to retire as WDC. The last one was Alain Prost who retired after winning the 1993 championship. Unlike 1994, though, while the #1 won’t be on the gird, there won’t be a #0 on the grid because drivers have their own personal numbers.
While he’s only 31-years-old, Rosberg has eleven seasons of Formula One experience, four with Williams and seven with Mercedes. Hot off winning the first-ever GP2 championship, Rosberg scored points in his first Grand Prix and became the then youngest driver to set the fastest lap of the race in the process. Over the course of his career, he would amass 1,594.5 points over 206 starts with 23 race wins, 30 pole positions, 57 podiums and 20 fastest race laps.
That brings us to what Mercedes will do next to replace Rosberg.
Various reports that almost every driver currently on the grid and those who recently left F1 are on the phone to Toto Wolff about taking the most coveted seat in Formula One. Wolff himself has dismissed the likes of Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel being available while also saying that he hadn’t hear from Kimi Raikkonen and Daniil Kvyat. He says he’s even heard from Vitaly Petrov and Pastor Maldonado.
Obviously, some names are more likely to land in a Mercedes than others.
While there are many people dreaming of a move by the likes of Vettel, Ricciardo or Fernando Alonso, these aren’t expected to happen. It’s believed that Alonso has a top team exit clause in his contract but Wolff has already tempered expectations that he would poach Alonso. It’s also worth keeping in mind that Alonso is believed to have a pre-contract with Porsche’s LMP1 program following the final year of his McLaren contract.
The two frontrunners for the position are reportedly Valtteri Bottas and Pascal Wehrlein. Bottas is in the final year of his contract with Williams, a Mercedes powered team, and is managed by a group partly owned by Toto Wolff. Wehrlein is a Mercedes junior driver who was put into a Manor, another Mercedes powered team, thanks to his association with the manufacturer.
Wolff has been publicly lukewarm to the idea of promoting Wehrlein to the factory Mercedes team with only one season of F1 experience. While Verstappen pulled off that feat successfully with his move from Toro Rosso to Red Bull, the paddock isn’t as bullish on Pascal’s potential as they are on Max.
Wolff has publicly indicated that he’d want Wehrlein in a midfield seat for seasoning before calling him up the the head of the pack. That opens up the door for Bottas. Extracting him from Williams could be accomplished with relative ease. Mercedes could offer a combination of a contract buyout, engine lease discount and/or replacement driver in the form of Wehrlein.
The only near certainty of Mercedes’ replacement search is that they will hire someone with F1 race experience to race alongside Hamilton in 2017. Beyond that, there aren’t any certainties.