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.