By Ben Wheatley
So as if 2016 couldn’t throw any more curve balls our way, Nico Rosberg has announced today (December 2nd) that he is to retire from Formula 1 immediately, just 5 days after claiming his maiden world championship.
This however isn’t the first time a reigning world champion has called it a day, since Alain Prost did the same all the way back in 1993 when driving for Williams.
By choosing to draw a close to his 10 years in Formula 1, joining Williams in 2007 before moving to the Brawn-turned-Mercedes outfit in 2010, he joins the likes of Felipe Massa and Jenson Button in leaving the sport, but Rosberg has by far done it in the most dramatic of styles.
— Nico Rosberg (@nico_rosberg) December 2, 2016
Though this is a complete shock, immediately heads will begin to turn to Mercedes. The outfit believed it had a solid driver lineup of Hamilton and Rosberg till 2018. But now it hasn’t. And with rumours surfacing over the past few days of Lewis himself threatening to boycott the rest of the 2016 season after the pairs clash at the Spanish GP in May, where does Mercedes find itself now?
Lewis Hamilton will almost undoubtedly stay at the team, now his main rival of the past 3 years has is leaving, but who will join him? F1’s elite drivers are all tied down into contacts with teams into 2017. One of its junior drivers in the form of Esteban Ocon has singed a two-year deal at Force India, leaving their other junior Pascal Werlein the only free candidate who could take up the seat.
But with arguably the most valuable seat in Formula 1 apart from the one occupied from Lewis Hamilton, could a few of Formula 1’s top driver’s be looking into contract escape clauses?
Two drivers that immediately come to mind are Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel. Both world champions, both highly rated, both seeking the best car in the business.
Sebastian Vettel looked reborn in 2015. He was the only non-Mercedes driver to win a race, 3 in fact, and looked certain to challenge the Silver Arrows for the title this year. That dream quickly became just that, a dream, as Ferrari seemingly failed to keep up its momentum, ultimately falling behind Red Bull to be 2016’s third best team. Reports of tension between Vettel and team Principle Maurizio Arrivabene also floated around for much of the season, with Vettel noticeably unhappier, as well as being moaner of the year on team radio.
Then there is Fernando Alonso. Fernando is perceived by many to be the best all round racer we have in the sport, and more deserving of more world titles than his current tally of two suggest. Winless since the current era of Formula 1 (his last race triumph was 2013’s Spanish GP), and hovering in the mid-field ever since joining McLaren, his time is running out on gaining a third world title, let alone another race win.
But would Mercedes want another of the sports A-list drivers on its rostrum, given the issues it had having Lewis and Nico over previous seasons?
One potential could be Valtteri Bottas. The youngest Finn on the grid, he is managed by non other than Mercedes Racing chief Toto Wolff, and is at Williams, a customer team of Mercedes. Could Mercedes buy him out of his contract, or negotiate a deal for cheaper engines with the Grove-based squad, and also place junior Pascal Werlein at a team placed higher up the grid?
This seems like a much likelier option than either Vettel or Alonso being paired up with Hamilton at Mercedes. But with brand new regulations coming into affect in 2017, and all the teams starting from scratch, could Mercedes want the strongest possible partnership to help ensure it stays at the top of the field. Only time will tell.
This is Formula 1, and if anything this year is to be taken into account, expect the unexpected.