With it being almost one week since Nico Rosberg announced his unexpected retirement from Formula 1 after winning the 2016 championship, it is without doubt that Mercedes will have started looking for a viable replacement for one of Formula 1’s most talented drivers of recent years.
Whoever is to join the team has big boots to fill however, with Mercedes being a championship challenging team after dominating the sport in recent years, winning at least one race every season since 2012 and winning both the drivers and constructors championships three years running. Whoever joins the team also faces large competition as they will be team mate to Lewis Hamilton – one of the most talented drivers on the grid currently and one of the most successful F1 racers of all time.
Since Rosberg announced his retirement, a number of drivers have contacted Mercedes to join the team in 2017, with almost half of the grid contacting the team according to sources from Mercedes. However, of these drivers, who is the best fit for the team in 2017?
Mercedes F1: The Search for Nico Rosberg’s Replacement Begins
Making his Formula 1 debut this season for Manor, Pascal Wehrlein is perhaps the favorite to replace Rosberg at Mercedes. Although only having one year of experience, Wehrlein has managed to prove his worth in one of the slowest cars on the 2016 grid. This season, Wehrlein finished in nineteenth place in the drivers championship, having one point to his name that he secured at the Austrian Grand Prix. However, in an under powered car and on a circuit that does not suit the Manor, this was a remarkable achievement, with this finishing marking Manor’s second points finish in the team’s history, and the team’s first points finish since the 2014 Monaco Grand Prix with Jules Bianchi at the helm. Also aiding Wehrlein are his contacts at Mercecdes already, with the driver being part of the manufacturer’s young driver program. However, when asked about Rosberg’s replacement, Mercedes’ non-executive chairman, Niki Lauda, said that they are looking for an experienced driver, and as Wehrlein only has one season of experience in F1, this is not something that the driver has on his side. Having carried out testing duties throughout the year for Mercedes however, Wehrlein is in a very strong position to join the team in 2017.
Making his debut for Williams in 2013, Valtteri Bottas is a driver who has experience on his side. Over his four seasons of experience, Bottas has proven his talent, securing countless podium finishes for his team and out performing his senior team mate, Felipe Massa, over the past 3 seasons. From early on in Bottas’ Formula 1 career, his speed was evident, qualifying in third place at the 2013 Canadian Grand Prix in an under powered car, putting him on the radar of a number of top teams, with the driver being linked to a move to Ferrari for the 2015, 2016, and 2017 seasons, potentially replacing Kimi Raikkonen at the team. Furthermore, the Finn also has ties with Mercedes team boss, Toto Wolff, with Wolff being part of the driver’s management. This places Bottas in an excellent position where joining Mercedes could be an option for 2017. However, when asked about Bottas joining the team in 2017, Toto Wolff acknowledged that it would be difficult, with Bottas signing with Williams for the 2017 season. Furthermore, the team boss said that Bottas is a key component in the Williams team, acting as number 1 driver next year following the retirement of Felipe Massa. Due to this, it looks like a difficult prospect for Bottas to join Mercedes in 2017, however, he is still in a strong position.
Having experience, speed, and talent, Fernando Alonso is one of the fastest drivers on the current Formula 1 grid, being named among the greats by commentator and journalist alike. Currently driving for McLaren, Alonso joined the team based on the principle that they would provide him with a championship winning car. With the Spaniard signing a three year deal with the Woking-based outfit and two seasons already passing, this dream is still far from a reality, with McLaren failing to finish on the podium since 2014, let alone winning a race, with their last win being in 2012. With a place at Mercedes available for 2017, could we see Alonso potentially move to the team, looking for one last shot at the world championship? Perhaps. When asked about Alonso, Toto Wolff has acknowledged that Alonso is in the frame, however, McLaren are very unlikely to let Alonso go, especially following the retirement of Jenson Button from Formula 1. When looking at Alonso’s role at McLaren, he is in a key position, effectively being the number 1 driver, with Stoffel Vandoorne partnering him there for 2017. Another issue also lies with the prospect of Alonso and Hamilton being team mates, with their pairing at McLaren in 2007 being a highly explosive affair, leading to Alonso leaving the team after only one season.
Like Wehrlein, Esteban Ocon also has ties to Mercedes, being part of their driver program. Ocon made his debut in Formula 1 halfway through the 2016 season at the Belgian Grand Prix, replacing Rio Haryanto at Manor after the Indonesian driver ran into sponsorship issues, meaning that he could not keep his seat. Ocon has proven his speed in Formula 1 very early on in his career, with this being notable at the Brazilian Grand Prix, where the Frenchman narrowly missed out on his first points finish in tricky conditions that caught out many big name drivers such as Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen. However, in this situation speed is not enough, and Ocon lacks experience, only having 9 grand prix starts to his name. For this reason, it is very unlikely that Ocon will appear in the second Mercedes in 2017, with the driver already signing for Force India for 2017.
Despite announcing his Formula 1 retirement before the race weekend of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Jenson Button could be a wildcard option for Mercedes. As the majority of the current Formula 1 grid have already signed with teams for 2017, Button is a driver who is fast, experienced, and available for next season. Although looking forward to life outside of Formula 1 next year, an offer from Mercedes could easily coax the 2009 champion back into the world of F1. When looking at the context around Button, the driver is also a very strong candidate, having raced alongside Hamilton at McLaren from 2010-2012 and also being part of the Brawn GP F1 Team which became Mercedes in 2010, meaning that the Brit is familiar with the team, with a lot of personnel from Brawn still being part of Mercedes at their Brackley base. Could we see Button in the second Mercedes alongside Lewis Hamilton in 2017? With the limited options that Mercedes have, all scenarios will be under consideration, and it would be very surprising if Button is not on their shortlist of potential replacements for Nico Rosberg.
With 2016 coming to a close very shortly, Mercedes are looking to finalize their driver line up for 2017 by the end of this year, allowing the reigning champions to focus on what could be one of the closest championships to date through new technical regulations.