Smith: After his bombshell, who will replace Nico Rosberg at Mercedes?

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The driver market for the 2017 Formula 1 season has been a regular talking point on MotorSportsTalk for the past few months.

‘Silly season’, as it is affectionally known, was expected to be particularly crazy ahead of the 2017 season given the number of drivers who were going to be out of contract. Daniel Ricciardo told me in pre-season it was going to be “badass.”

But things went quiet: Max Verstappen got an early promotion to Red Bull; Kimi Raikkonen got another year at Ferrari; Sergio Perez decided to stay at Force India. By the end of the racing season, just three seats remained at Sauber and Manor.

And then Nico Rosberg dropped his bombshell.

Ahead of the FIA prizegiving in Vienna on Friday night, Rosberg announced to the world that, less than six days after being crowned World Champion, he would be ending his racing career with immediate effect.

This is an enormous shock to the F1 paddock and the sporting world as a whole. While it is hardly rare for athletes to quit while on top, it is for them to do so when they’ve still got a number of years left in them. Rosberg is 31. Michael Schumacher didn’t retire until he was 43.

I wrote on Monday in the wake of Rosberg’s title success that one world title might be enough for him. He’s not wired the same way as the Lewis Hamiltons or Fernando Alonsos of this world, to whom three and two World Championships respectively seem an injustice. Rosberg is World Champion forever now; that won’t change no matter how many more times he wins it.

Now Nico gets the chance to be a father and a husband full-time. To him, family is everything. His wife, Vivian, was in all of his post-race shots, celebrating the world title success, while little Alaia is just one year old; it’s a precious time for fathers.

In F1 though, the question now surrounds who will step into Rosberg’s shoes.

It’s time for Silly Season 2: Electric Boogaloo.

The two men who were perceived as being the natural successors to Hamilton and Rosberg at Mercedes were junior drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon. Both raced for Manor this year, making their F1 debuts, with Ocon impressing enough to get a seat with Force India for 2017. Wehrlein is still yet to be signed to a seat for next year.

If Mercedes wants a quick fix, then Wehrlein is a viable option. He is known to the team and has shown signs of pace, scoring just the second point in Manor’s seven-season history this season. However, Force India’s decision to pass on him and take Ocon surely raises doubt as to his suitability to the Mercedes seat.

Because what is now on offer for next season is the chance of a lifetime for the F1 grid. New regulations may be on the horizon for 2017, but Mercedes is expected to still be fighting at the front of the grid. It has enjoyed one of the most dominant spells in the long history of F1. Driver contracts may be in place, but they can be bought out if the price is right.

As one Twitter follower put it: “The hottest girl in school is without a prom date at the moment.”

So who might be the Prom King to this Prom Queen?

The immediate aftermath of the announcement has seen all of F1’s biggest names linked with the drive, including Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, both of whom enter the final year of their contracts in 2017 with McLaren and Ferrari respectively.

Both moved to their new teams at the end of 2014 as part of a long-term project to take them back to the front of the grid; both were left to endure trying 2016 campaigns that yielded not a single victory.

So could either make the move up? Frankly, the money would have to be staggering from Mercedes to get either out of their contract, particularly in Vettel’s case. And things haven’t exactly reached ‘Alonso level’ of frustrating and anger for the German at Maranello just yet.

The Red Bull boys are locked in for 2017 – although you’ve got to think that Mercedes is surely now feeling even more frustrated that it missed out on Verstappen three years ago – and should be in a position to mount a title challenge next year given the progress the team has made through this season. So again, a no-go really.

So instead, it would have to be a driver who is up-and-coming but currently mired in the midfield. Two drivers come to mind.

Firstly, there is Valtteri Bottas. The Finn was the breakout star of F1 in 2014 with Williams, taking a number of podium finishes, but has failed to reach such dizzying heights over the past two campaigns, scoring just one top-three result through 2016.

However, Bottas is still widely regarded as being a top talent, and is managed by Toto Wolff, who also happens to be Mercedes’ F1 chief. If the money is right to prize him away from Williams, Bottas could be a good fit.

Another possibility is Carlos Sainz Jr. Sainz had a hugely impressive campaign in 2016 with Toro Rosso, but there is no room for him to move up to Red Bull’s senior F1 operation for the foreseeable future with Verstappen and Ricciardo in place.

Sainz is currently slated for another year at Toro Rosso, but Red Bull must know deep down that keeping him at STR in the long-term will be an impossible task. So why not ask Mercedes to cough up the cash, while also freeing up a seat for GP2 champion Pierre Gasly in 2017?

You could also make a case for the likes of Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean, both of whom seem to be waiting for their ‘big shot’ in F1.

For Mercedes, it all boils down to its long-term plan. If it thinks Wehrlein is ready, he would be a sensible choice, although it would act as an enormous leap as he literally goes from the back of the grid to the front. Ocon would be in a similar boat, and Mercedes would need to pull him out of the Force India deal.

If Mercedes wants the best driver available, then surely Alonso and Vettel will be on its radar. But it would be more troublesome to hire them – plus the team has Lewis Hamilton to appease, who will be hungrier than ever for a fourth world title in 2017.

If Mercedes wants to take a shot on one of the midfield up-and-comers, then Bottas and Sainz are perhaps the best bets.

But it must be stressed that these are all ‘ifs.’

2016 has been a year packed with shocks and surprise. Rosberg’s retirement is really just the icing on the cake.

NHRA shocker: John Force fails to qualify for first time since 2008, snaps 221-race streak

Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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Sunday’s eliminations in the 31st annual NHRA SpringNationals at Royal Purple Raceway in suburban Houston  just won’t be the same without John Force.
In one of the most stunning turn of events seen in the last decade-plus in NHRA drag racing, the legendary 16-time Funny Car champion and the sport’s all-time winningest driver on Saturday failed to qualify for Sunday’s main event of the race weekend.
It marks the first time Force, who turns 69 on May 4, failed to qualify for a race since the Charlotte race in 2008, snapping a string of having made the eliminations in each of the subsequent and consecutive 221 races until failing to do so Saturday.
“That is hard for me,” Force said after failing to go any faster than 222.29 mph in the four qualifying rounds for the race, two on Friday and the other two on Saturday. “You earn what you get. We didn’t put it in the show. We couldn’t get to half-track.
“We have had a lot of problems all year. At least I got my final shot to get in and I didn’t make it. I will be here tomorrow rooting on Robert, Courtney and Brittany (teammates Robert Hight and daughters Courtney and Brittany Force). I’ll be signing autographs for all the fans.”

As for the other classes (information courtesy NHRA Media Relations):

Leah Pritchett set a new Top Fuel track record during the final qualifying session on Saturday to secure the top spot in Top Fuel heading into Sunday.
Hight (Funny Car) and Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) are also No. 1 qualifiers in their respective categories at the fifth of 24 events on the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.
Defending event champion Pritchett raced her Mopar Dodge dragster to a pass of 3.680-seconds at 326.00 mph. This is her first No. 1 qualifier of the season and eighth of her career.
“We’ve been developing our confidence the last couple of races,” Pritchett stated. “To be able to put it on the track is phenomenal. We know we need to be exceptional because our competition is exceptional.”
Pritchett will line up against Terry Brian in round one of eliminations on Sunday. Defending world champion Brittany Force locked-in the No. 2 spot after a 3.701 at 313.80 in her Monster Energy dragster. Tony Schumacher is seeded third and will face William Litton.
Hight’s final qualifying pass of 3.894 at 317.27 in his Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro took him to the top of the Funny Car category. This is his first No. 1 qualifier of the season, second at Houston and 58th of his career.
“This is going to be a new ball game tomorrow,” Hight said. “With fresh asphalt and the sun being out; these cars are going to spin. It’s definitely going to be fun. Two of our Chevy’s are one and two (in Funny Car) which shows we have good combinations.”
Hight will face-off against Todd Simpson Sunday morning in the first round. Teammate Courtney Force sits in the No. 2 position with a pass of 3.911 at 295.14 in her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro and two-time world champion Matt Hagan rounds out the top three.
Anderson, four-time Pro Stock world champion, remained atop the field Saturday with his pass of 6.492 at 213.00 in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro from the first qualifying session on Friday. He notched his third consecutive No. 1 qualifier of the season and is seeking his first victory of the year.
“I haven’t had great Sunday’s yet,” Anderson stated. “I know I’m going to break through one of these days though. The weather is going to be great again tomorrow. I feel good about it, I’m excited and so far it’s just been a great weekend.”
Anderson will race Steve Graham in the first round of eliminations. Jeg Coughlin Jr. qualified in the No. 2 position with a pass of 6.504 at 212.36 in his JEGS.com/Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro and Tanner Gray is third.
Eliminations at the NHRA SpringNationals begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday at Royal Purple Raceway.
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SUNDAY’S FIRST-ROUND PAIRINGS FOR ELIMINATIONS:
TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett, 3.680 seconds, 326.00 mph vs. 16. Terry Brian, 4.275, 284.62; 2.
Brittany Force, 3.701, 320.20 vs. 15. Terry Haddock, 4.081, 287.17; 3. Tony Schumacher, 3.703,
322.73 vs. 14. Bill Litton, 3.927, 306.60; 4. Billy Torrence, 3.737, 317.87 vs. 13. Kebin Kinsley, 3.819, 313.51; 5. Antron Brown, 3.740, 324.98 vs. 12. Terry McMillen, 3.783, 314.31; 6. Clay Millican, 3.746, 315.78 vs. 11. Mike Salinas, 3.766, 313.73; 7. Doug Kalitta, 3.748, 320.05 vs. 10. Richie Crampton, 3.766, 316.23; 8. Scott Palmer, 3.754, 318.17 vs. 9. Steve Torrence, 3.759, 313.88. Did Not Qualify: 17. Terry Totten, 4.636, 216.34.
FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.894, 317.27 vs. 16. Todd Simpson, Dodge Charger, 4.318, 288.33; 2. Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.911, 313.58 vs. 15. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Camry, 4.151, 283.49; 3. Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.913, 311.85 vs. 14. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.077, 305.77; 4. Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.918, 317.42 vs. 13. Richard Townsend, Camry, 4.026, 308.99; 5. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 3.918, 301.94 vs. 12. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.017, 307.51; 6. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 3.925, 311.41 vs. 11. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.994, 311.34; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.926,
313.00 vs. 10. J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.989, 313.37; 8. Jonnie Lindberg, Camry, 3.927, 316.52 vs. 9. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.938, 314.09. Did Not Qualify: 17. Jim Campbell, 4.341, 273.05; 18. John Force, 4.625, 222.29.
PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.492, 213.00 vs. 16. Steve Graham, Camaro, 6.775, 205.60; 2. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.504, 212.36 vs. 15. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.621, 208.65; 3. Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.507, 211.99 vs. 14. John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.592, 210.93; 4. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.513, 212.29 vs. 13. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.548, 210.67; 5. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.518, 211.99 vs. 12. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.545, 210.50; 6. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.525, 212.79 vs. 11. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.532, 212.73; 7. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.527, 212.29 vs. 10. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.532, 211.79; 8. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.528, 211.93 vs. 9. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.530, 211.33.