In a year of completely unexpected results Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire from F1 is one of the more shocking. Less than a week after clinching a maiden F1 World title the German has decided to walk away from Formula 1 and the dominant Mercedes team.
Mercedes now have to find a replacement for the outgoing World Champion but the shock waves from Rosberg’s decision will run right through the whole of F1. So what happens next?
For sale: one Mercedes seat, one careful owner, race winning potential
Undoubtedly the first question is who fills the vacant seat at Mercedes for the 2017 F1 season. But it is more complicated than just picking another driver for the World championship wining team.
Mercedes have two junior drivers on their books in the form of Pascal Wherlein and Esteban Ocon. Ocon has competed in a handful of races this season and caught the eye of Force India who signed him for 2017. In principle he is not an option but it depends on clauses in his new contract (on which the ink has barely dried).
By contrast Wherlein is technically still contracted to Manor but would be a far easier option. His contract was tied directly to the supply of Mercedes engines Manor secured for 2016. Undoubtedly Wherlein will be at the front of the queue for the coveted seat alongside Lewis Hamilton.
Are the Mercedes junior drivers up to the job?
But are either of them up to the job? Wherlein has shown pace and skill at times, but trundling around at the tail of the field is nothing like the pressure-cooker environment at Mercedes. Sliding in alongside Hamilton could be a career-defining or career-ending move for the young German.
Assuming Mercedes continue to dominate in the new regulations for 2017, the team may want a bit of peace and quiet in the form of a recognised number 2 driver. In that regard Wherlein would be the perfect candidate: willing to get more races and experience in the shadow of Hamilton. But that might be a big gamble for Mercedes. What if they are not as dominant next season?
Should Red Bull and Ferrari make up significant ground with new car designs for 2017, next year may not be another straightforward constructors/driver double. From that perspective the team will need to have two strong drivers in place. So who do they look to?
Do Alonso, Bottas, Ricciardo have get out clauses?
Naturally focus will turn to Fernando Alonso and his position at McLaren-Honda. Despite obvious and fairly significant progress in 2016, without a major innovation for 2017 that no other team copies it is unlikely Alonso will challenge for regular podiums let alone the third title he is overdue. A move to Mercedes would provide a far better chance for the Spaniard.
A safer option might be Williams’ Valterri Bottas. He’s managed by Mercedes chief Toto Wolff, is reliable, unflappable and consistent. The Finn could be the ideal foil to Hamilton in 2017 offering a challenge and regular podium potential, without causing disharmony in the Mercedes camp. The question is then whether Williams could content with losing their team leader and find another in time. Rookie Lance Stroll is in no position to lead them in 2017 and the team needs to get back to solid consistent results quickly.
One wonders if Jenson Button might be loaned to Williams temporarily as a result. Watch this space.
Daniel Ricciardo could be another option. Again that depends on whether he thinks Red Bull can come up with a better car than Mercedes in 2017 and how much he feels threatened by Max Verstappen. In a similar way to the Vettel and Webber partnership, there is a strong sense that Max is Red Bull’s next ‘chosen one’. Ricciardo might already see the writing on the wall and desperate for a first title, decide to throw his flat brimmed cap in the ring with Mercedes.
What does Bernie think?
F1 circus master Bernie Ecclestone will undoubtedly have a lot to say about Rosberg’s sudden retirement.
Not only has F1 lost a defending World Champion, it has also lost the most significant rivalry of the past few years. In fact, without Hamilton and Rosberg going toe-to-toe for the last 3 years, F1 would have been one long Mercedes advert. In short, it would have been as dull as the dominant Schumacher-Ferrari days.
At a time when races are losing spectators, sponsors are leaving and TV figures are dropping this will not be good news for Bernie or new owners-elect Liberty Media. It is therefore safe to assume Bernie will be doing all he can to encourage Mercedes to think outside their junior ranks for a new driver.
A Hamilton/Alonso rematch would be big box office for F1 under the assumption they would be nip and tuck next season. Bernie wants Red Bull and Ferrari to catch Mercedes but failing that, he will want Mercedes to have two drivers who will fight it out as Hamilton and Rosberg have. The likes of Wherlein or Ocon are very unlikely to be do that.
Consequently Bernie may start having words in the ears of drivers like Alonso, Ricciardo, Bottas or perhaps even Vettel. The German has lost patience already with Ferrari and the chance to go toe-to-toe with Hamilton for a fifth World title could be hard to ignore.
The domino effect
Even if Mercedes plump for the easy option and promote Wherlein, there is going to be a ripple effect throughout the F1 paddock. Another young driver will get a chance at Manor potentially but other moves could have bigger repercussions.
If Alonso jumps to Mercedes, Button’s sabatical/retirement could be exceptionally short-lived. Similarly if Bottas jumps to Merc the Briton could be in a Williams – something many of us thought might happen earlier this year. Alternatively if Ricciardo were to leave Red Bull, would GP2 champion Pierre Gasly find himself elevated to Toro Rosso and Carlos Sainz pairing with Max Verstappen in 2017?
Bottom line: the 2017 off season just go a whole lot more interesting.