Toto Wolff was quoted this week saying that the Mercedes F1 team are prepared to make a ‘brave’ decision on Nico Rosberg’s replacement. What that means is open to interpretation and could end up with a surprising end result.
Mercedes want to be in a position to secure a fourth successive drivers and constructors world title double in 2017. In doing so they can match Red Bull’s recent record and with new regulations prove their dominance is not solely down to their hybrid power unit.
Forget the driver, how good will the car be in 2017?
The brave decision for Mercedes will be determined to a great extent by how they view their potential 2017 car performance.
Forget the well-worn F1 team line of ‘we won’t now where we are until Melbourne’. Mercedes will already have an idea of their performance benchmark for next season. Under the revised regulations there is a bit more scope for miscalculation but Mercedes will expect to enter 2017 in one of three potential positions:
- Retaining (or enhancing) their existing performance advantage
- Retaining a smaller performance advantage
- With a marginal or negligible performance advantage.
Each scenario will have a significant impact on the choice of driver, more so than the clauses in driver contracts or their marketing appeal will. Here’s why.
Scenario 1: Mercedes still dominate
Under these circumstances Mercedes would promote Pascal Werhlein. The prospect of less intra-team hassle and a happier Hamilton will be difficult to pass up. But more importantly with a retained performance advantage, promoting the inexperienced German will carry less risk.
With Hamilton continuing to rack up wins, Werhlein will only have to keep himself in front of the chasing pack. Even if his inexperience means he drops podiums to Red Bull or Ferrari, Mercedes should still have enough left in the tank. In theory Hamilton could stroll to the 2017 World title and Mercedes win the constructors again, albeit with a reduced points margin.
Scenario 2: Mercedes hold a smaller performance advantage in 2017
This is where things become more interesting. Whilst the constructors and drivers point standings in 2016 suggested Red Bull and Ferrari were well behind Mercedes, in races there were signs of Red Bull at least making progress.
Fast forward to 2017 and assume the Mercedes advantage has decreased with the new regulations. Less of an advantage makes a move for Werhlein risky. Would the young German – after a season trundling around unspectacularly in a Manor – be able to perform to the level needed to rack up points to win Mercedes a fourth constructors title?
Werhlein has not impressed at Manor in the way the late Jules Bianchi did. Had Jules still been around and Vettel did ‘a Rosberg’ Bianchi would be having his seat fitting at Maranello right now. And the fact Werhlein did not catch the eye of any other teams should be a worry for Mercedes.
Is Werhlein good enough for the best seat in F1?
It certainly casts doubt over his ability to score consistent 2nd places against Ricciardo, Verstappen, Vettel and Raikkonen. Throw Perez and Ocon, plus perhaps a resurgent Williams, McLaren or even Renault and things start to look a lot more shaky.
In this scenario Mercedes would likely opt for a strong performer who is not necessarily considered to be at Hamilton’s level. Step forward Valterri Bottas.
Unflappable and calm he would not get caught up in Hamilton’s mind games as much as others might. Equally he is unlikely to rock the boat at Mercedes – a team that will yearn for a season with a less hostile intra-team battle for the title. With a Mercedes under him – albeit a less dominant one than anticipated – Bottas would be the ideal tail-gunner for Hamilton. He will be fast enough to keep Hamilton honest but not enough to really challenge him.
Scenario 3: Mercedes hold little or no performance advantage
It is unlikely but possible with the change in regulations. In a scenario where Mercedes start the season on a level playing field with Red Bull, Ferrari or whichever other team finds an engineering trick (we are looking at you McLaren) Werhlein would be a massive risk.
While a closer battle would bring the best out of Hamilton, the brutal truth is that Werhlein would likely be overwhelmed by having to fight tooth and nail with a rival team (or teams). Similarly, Bottas might not be the right man for the job if the driver and not the Mercedes car needs to make the difference between winning and losing. Someone like Sergio Perez falls in to that same category in my opinion.
In that instance Mercedes would need a driver capable of making up the difference; a man to bring than extra two-tenths of a second and develop the car during the season. Within the current F1 field that only offers up 3 possible candidates: Alonso, Ricciardo and Vettel.
It is going to be about the car, not the driver
Ultimately a brave decision by Mercedes would be picking a driver unsuited for any of these scenarios. For example picking Werhlein if the Mercedes advantage is reduced or negligible. Similarly plumping for a big name like Alonso or Vettel if they remain dominant will just set the team up for more internal strife.
My prediction? Bottas to join Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes in 2017.