A week ago, Formula 1 was easing into the off-season, celebrating a new drivers’ champion and looking forward to a few quiet weeks before full focus would switch to 2017. The only seats available were one at Sauber and two at Manor, and all seemed in order.
Then Nico Rosberg made the shock announcement that he would be retiring from F1 with immediate effect. Citing his desire to spend more time with his family and his disinterest in making the required sacrifices to defend his title, Rosberg had suddenly left a seat vacant in the dominant car of the past three years.
It’s a seat that will be coveted by all on the F1 grid, so in that sense you would expect it to be easy for Mercedes to replace the 2016 champion. However, there are a number of facets to the decision that make it a very big call for the Mercedes hierarchy to be faced with. And depending on the current priorities for the likes of Toto Wolff and Paddy Lowe, a number of different drivers would fit the bill.
So why is it such a big decision for Mercedes to have to make?
Well, firstly, there is the simple aspect of replacing a driver with Rosberg’s skill set. Granted, many observers, fans and even team members would attest that Lewis Hamilton is the all-round better driver when strapped into the cockpit, but Rosberg delivered his finest season in 2016 and it was enough to take advantage of a difficult year for his teammate.
The German is clearly a deserving world champion because a title is not won by being the fastest driver or the best on the grid, it is won by putting together the best combination of performances over a calendar year. What Rosberg has shown over his career is his ability to do that on a number of occasions. He delivers when the car is to his liking, and he delivers close to the car’s capabilities when it is not. The fact that Rosberg qualified in the top two at every race from the 2015 Japanese Grand Prix until his retirement – an impressive 27 consecutive races – is testament to that.
Mercedes knew the window Rosberg would work in, and it delivered consistent results. For a team, the constructors’ title is all-important – that’s where the prize money is – and Hamilton’s raw talent combined with his teammate’s work ethic, stable approach and ability to maintain a consistently high level of performance was perfect, despite the headaches it sometimes provided.
The need for the pairing to continue its success was becoming increasingly apparent as the 2016 season went on. As Mercedes closed in on both titles, so too Red Bull’s threat at individual races started to increase. Ferrari, too, wasn’t that far off and Wolff’s ill-advised attempts to ensure Max Verstappen’s name was not associated with the title race for the wrong reasons were due to Mercedes not always being streets ahead as it so often has been.
With new regulations set to be introduced in 2017, there is no guarantee the Mercedes dominance will continue. Of course, the Silver Arrows are likely to be one of the front-runners and have as good a chance as any other team at setting the standard once again, but even the teams themselves don’t know where they stack up until pre-season testing gets underway. The safe bet is for the current top three to again lead the way, and if that’s the case then it’s clear why Mercedes has such a crucial decision on its hands.
If the status quo remains, then Mercedes is likely to be well-placed to secure a fourth consecutive championship double. But if either Red Bull or Ferrari closes the gap by any clear margin, then the pressure will be on.
At Milton Keynes, the line-up of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen – race winners both – is widely embraced as the most exciting in the sport. Both troubled Mercedes on occasions this year, and Verstappen marked himself out as a star of the now, not of the future.
Over in Maranello, a pairing of two world champions in the form of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen will take any opportunities presented to them. Raikkonen’s clear improvement over the past two seasons suggests he can still produce his best form, and Vettel remains one of the best drivers on the grid even if he let his frustrations get the better of him too often this year.
On top of his ability to bring in the results, Rosberg provided excellent marketing value for Mercedes. Yes, Hamilton is seen as F1’s poster boy, but Rosberg was adept at speaking to sponsors, partners and fans alike, often in a number of different languages, to promote the Mercedes brand.
While they had a number of controversial moments – none more so than in Spain and Austria this year – Rosberg and Hamilton also found a way of ensuring their rivalry did not cost Mercedes the main prize. We’ll never know if that would have been the case with closer opposition, but Hamilton’s infamous 2007 season alongside Fernando Alonso at McLaren showed how it can all slip away if the battle between teammates gets out of hand.
Whoever Mercedes chooses is going to have to do more than just keep Hamilton on his toes, he is going to have to challenge the triple world champion throughout the season. Rosberg’s retirement overshadowed the team’s annoyance with Hamilton disobeying orders to speed up in Abu Dhabi – regardless of whether that call should even have been made – and it later came to light that the Briton had threatened to walk away himself after the collision with Rosberg in Barcelona.
Should Hamilton have it easy next year, his power over the team could become too great. Should the new teammates not get on, perhaps this season has shown Hamilton may well move on, too. For example, if either Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon get the seat, could Hamilton – who did hint he questioned whether Rosberg was getting preferential treatment at times this year – feel a Mercedes young driver would receive additional backing, in much the same way Alonso (PICTURED) was unhappy at McLaren in 2007?
With the potential for that to happen – however small – does Mercedes try and tie down another world class driver for a number of years at great expense, invest in youth or initially try to fill Rosberg’s shoes for one season only?
The latter option is a consideration because numerous top drivers – including Alonso, Vettel and Raikkonen – as well as maturing talents such as Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez, are out of contract at the end of 2017. By promoting one of its current youngsters, Mercedes could have a full year to analyze their potential, as well as its other options, and secure its ideal driver without having to pay through the nose to buy him out of his current contract.
But if the team has failed to secure the constructors’ title due to gambling on an unproven driver for a year, then the decision will have cost it a significant amount of money regardless. Get the decision right and Mercedes will have a settled line-up in 12 months time. Get it very wrong and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility it could need two new drivers.
Not easy, is it?