It’s the day after deadline day and the rumour mill is just as rampant as you would expect. Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement announcement has given Mercedes a problem. Not only do they have to fill a World Champion’s shoes, but also find a driver who can cope with the formidable force on the other side of the garage, all while potentially having to consider the possibility of throwing money at a team for a driver already signed for 2017.
I wouldn’t want to be in Toto Wolff or Paddy Lowe’s shoes. But, if I was, here’s who would be on my shortlist.
Toto Wolff’s protege and proof of a successful programme
Red Bull are rather more obvious with regards to their young driver programme. Mercedes may not have a B-Team as closely aligned as Toro Rosso is to Red Bull, but they are still able to provide their young talents with opportunities.
Both Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon have been stationed at Manor this season – the former, on the back of a championship winning DTM campaign – and have developed well. Wehrlein has been exceptional in qualifying, delivering when under intense pressure and hauling his Manor into Q2 on five occasions.
His point in Austria was particularly impressive and very nearly saw Manor into a lucrative top ten finish in the Constructors’.
These accolades achieved at race weekends this year follow a number of headline test appearances for Wehrlein, with the German completing numerous successful test days at Force India and Manor as well as numerous days behind the wheel of the Mercedes.
The only question mark that stops Wehrlein being a “slam-dunk” for the drive is his experience. At times in his career, he has seemed prone to mistakes and acts of petulance. Think back to August 2015, when he declared “war” against Audi after a controversial clash with Timo Scheider at the Spielberg round of the DTM series. Or when he refused to switch off his car when beached in the gravel trap during FP3 at Austin this year.
Sure, he has enormous talent, but also a lot to learn and I doubt he is quite ready to be thrown into the spotlight in what will be a highly competitive car.
Linked to Wolff, and would allow Wehrlein time to mature
He may not be a Mercedes junior driver, but Williams’ Valtteri Bottas does also have ties with Toto Wolff. The Austrian was part of his three-pronged management team upon the Finn’s arrival in the sport and while they seem to have scaled back their partnership of late, I’m sure Toto still has Valtteri’s number on speed dial.
Of course, Mercedes would have to buy Bottas out of his Williams contract. That would likely be difficult, particularly considering that with 18-year-old Lance Stroll in the other car, Bottas’ experience will be invaluable to Williams next season.
Potentially the lure of capital and offer of Pascal Wehrlein’s services for next season would be enough to convince Williams to let their star driver go.
Could his disappointing 2016 have brought a break-clause into play?
Mercedes don’t necessarily have to opt for a young charger. They could place a known quantity in the car, who will challenge Hamilton to the extent that Rosberg has managed – perhaps even increase the threat posed to the Englishman’s legacy – right from the off.
It would be fascinating to see Sebastian Vettel face Lewis Hamilton in equal machinery. The two drivers who, in my opinion, can be considered the best of their generation. A pairing that would mean Mercedes field a driver line-up with seven combined titles and nearly a century of race victories.
It doesn’t get any better than that!
Potentially, it wouldn’t even mean breaking his Ferrari contract. It is likely that the German would have engineered some sort of break clause into his contract, particularly given the erratic form endured by Ferrari over the past decade. The question is, would finishing the season without a win and placed fourth in the Drivers’ standings triggered Vettel’s parachute out of the Ferrari project?
A vacant seat at Toro Rosso would solve Red Bull’s Gasly dilemma
Off of most people’s radar for the Mercedes vacancy, but a candidate who would make sense for several reasons, Red Bull’s next in line Carlos Sainz could be in the frame.
Max Verstappen has rightly received tremendous acclaim for being one of the best natural talents the sport has seen this decade. What has been somewhat overlooked, is the manner in which Carlos Sainz managed to match the Dutchman in their rookie season. In 2016, he faced a new challenge in Daniil Kvyat and comfortably outclassed him.
Sainz clearly has enormous talent and as such, the argument that would dissuade many from putting a bet on the Spaniard ending up in silver machinery next season is that Red Bull would not want to let him head to a rival team. After all, they did decline Renault’s offer of free engines in return for Sainz’s services, just two months ago.
That was, however, before Pierre Gasly claimed the GP2 title and gave Dr. Helmut Marko a headache. He obviously can’t defend his title in the category next season, meaning that Gasly could fall into the career chasm that previously engulphed Antonio Felix Da Costa.
Should Sainz find a way out of his Red Bull shackles, the consolation for Marko and co would be that it solves their Gasly dilemma.
Still desperate for an elusive third World Drivers’ title
As mentioned with regards to Sebastian Vettel, Mercedes could easily opt for a known quantity to sit alongside Hamilton. What if they place Fernando Alonso alongside the Englishman and would it spell a similar team meltdown that tore McLaren apart in 2007?
I very much doubt the pairing would be as explosive as it was. The politics of the season played a huge part in the breakdown of their relationship, as did the intensity of the title battle and the astounding fact that Hamilton entered the sport capable of beating Alonso fair and square on any given Sunday. Something Nando definitely didn’t see coming!
Both are more mature and Mercedes’ management structure seems far more stable than McLaren’s Ron Dennis-centric operation of 2007.
Alonso’s time at Ferrari and recent radio outbursts during the difficult moments of his second stint at McLaren are evidence that the Spaniard can still be a destructive influence. Whether this is something that Mercedes feel they would want to take a gamble on remains to be seen, particularly when you consider the number of drivers who would want the seat.
Sure, Alonso might be one of the best drivers on the grid, but Mercedes would be opting for a short term solution and one that, in my opinion, is just as risky as taking on Wehrlein albeit for a different reason.