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

4 Comments

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.

Adam Enticknap paves the way for the ‘Other 19’

Feld Entertainment Inc
Leave a comment

Once the 2020 Monster Energy AMA Supercross season kicks off in Anaheim, Calif. on January 4, eyes inevitably will begin to focus on the front of the field.

One rider will win that race. Two will stand on either side of him on the podium. Nineteen others will ride quietly back to the garage and if they’re lucky, get a few minutes to tell the tale of their race to a few members of the media. On their way off the track, the other 19 will take a minute to wave to the fans in the stands.

Adam Enticknap will motion for them to follow him.

One of the most engaging riders in the sport, Enticknap not only recognizes his role as a dark horse on Supercross grid, he revels in it.

“Not everyone is going to win,” Enticknap said last week at the Supercross media sessions. “There’s only one winner on a weekend; that’s it. There can’t be more than one winner. And everyone else has got to go home and eat too.”

A recognized Hip Hop artist known for his video ‘My Bikes Too Lit’, Enticknap is bringing new fans to the track – and as a result, he is putting a spotlight on riders deeper in the field.

Last year Enticknap was coming off a broken femur that marred his SX season. He made only three Mains with a 20th in Indianapolis, 15th at Houston, and an 18th at Las Vegas. In October, he earned a career-best 14th in the Monster Energy Cup at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. He got there by being consistent in the three heats, finishing 16-15-15.

But that’s not the point for Enticknap. Yes, he wants to win but it is just as important to be the ambassador for those riders who are known only to their fans.

“I’ve made a path for riders that are not going to win,” Enticknap said. “And that’s not saying that I don’t want to win, or that I’m not going to win, but I’ve made it so that the guy who’s finishing 20th and barely making the Mains can make a full career out of it. I’m probably the most famous, slowest guy on the track. It’s come from the way I’ve marketed myself and the way I’ve been with my fans and I’ve appreciated every second that I’ve been here.”

On a good weekend, Enticknap is one of the “other 19” in the Main Event.

“Without all of us, there really is no winner. Everybody’s got to show up and everybody’s got to compete during the weekend. In our sport, everyone is so hyper-focused on the guy who is winning all the time, but I hope that I’ve opened people’s eyes that sometimes it’s not just about the guy who wins the race as much as it is about the guy who is succeeding during the weekend.”

For Enticknap, success looks different than for last year’s champion Cooper Webb or Eli Tomac who won six of the 17 races in 2019. It’s about knowing that when it’s time to ride back to the hauler – whether that is at the end of the Main or after a Last Chance Qualifier – that nothing was left on the track.

“My best finish was a 14th at the Monster Energy Cup – ever in my career,” Enticknap emphasized. “Making my way from the bottom is huge. I made my way from not even making the top 40 to finishing 14th in A-Main Event. That’s huge.”

And that’s progress.

In his second season with H.E.P. Motorsports, Enticknap predicts he will make 10 Mains this year.

Even if he advances to only half of the Features, it will be his best season in eight years at this level. Enticknap qualified for seven Mains in 2017 with a best of 18th at Vegas. He was in five Mains in 2018 with a best of 16th at San Diego before signing with his current team – and getting injured without rightly being able to show what he could do with them.

“I want to break into the top 10 – that’s my goal for the year – but as of right now I’m succeeding in all the little goals that I’ve set and I want to keep succeeding,” Enticknap said.

It’s not enough to want to finish well, however; riders have to visualize a path to success. For Enticknap, that will come with because of how he approaches stadium races. Towering over the field, Enticknap is not a small man by anyone’s measure so it’s ironic that he makes a comparison between Supercross and ballet. The indoor season is about precision, technical mastery, and finesse. And that is where Enticknap believes he shines.

“Supercross is more of a ballet. It’s more perfection. It’s something that takes so much talent – and you can see it in real life. When you watch an outdoor race, you’re like ‘that guy’s a beast’; he’s manhandling it; he’s hammering the throttle. And when you see a Supercross race it’s just so rhythmic and flowing and light. So much finesse on everything. Just such a fluent, technical race.”

Enticknap credits his background in BMX racing as one of the reasons why he is so fluid on a tight track.

“Supercross fits my riding style a lot,” Enticknap said. “I don’t like to just hang it out and get all sideways and just swap, swap, swap. I like to be very precise in all my movement. I’m a perfectionist. It helps in Supercross because everything is just timed by the millisecond.”

More: Michael Mosiman expects magic in this third year

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter