A relatively low-key driver market has been sent into absolute anarchy following the announcement of new World Champion Nico Rosberg’s retirement from Formula 1. Realistically, Rosberg’s replacement will either be Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, or their junior driver Pascal Wehrlein. Should it be the former, then the Felipe Massa retirement party may have just been a tad premature.
Should the Felipe Massa Retirement Plans be Abandoned?
Massa announced his retirement from F1 earlier this year. This paved the way for Canadian Formula 3 champion Lance Stroll to come in at the tender age of 18. This proves to be an issue for both Williams and title sponsor Martini – Williams now need an experienced driver to partner Stroll (especially as there is a major regulation change coming) and Martini must have at least one driver over the age of 25 to be able to advertise in select countries. Massa easily fits both of these criteria.
Retiring from F1 and then making a return to the grid is not unheard of in the sport. Nigel Mansell is a fine example after his dismissal from Ferrari at the end of 1990, only to be poached by former team Williams. However, Massa would be an unusual case of jumping ship (or being pushed depending on how you look at it), only to return the following year.
Final Season and Beyond
The 2016 season wasn’t a stellar one by the Brazilian’s standards – he was the most frequently beaten driver by his team mate on Saturdays, and was outscored 85-53 by Bottas. He was also without a podium for the first time since 2011. Massa ranked only 14th on our end of season driver rankings – five places behind his team mate.
The stars are beginning to align for Massa to return however, there have already been reports in the Brazilian media that the deal is already done, and Pat Symonds – a key voice in favour of keeping Bottas, has been axed from the team.
The case for wanting at least some continuity within the team is a convincing one; whilst it is also frustrating to see a seat which is expected to be well into the midfield next year go to a driver who many feel called the time to retire spot on. However, Williams’ options which fit the two criteria outlined earlier are very few and far between. A third criteria – having a decent amount of racing experience in the complicated hybrid-era Formula 1 cars (i.e. racing experience in F1 from 2014-2016) is also fair to have.
Of the drivers who are currently unattached to another F1 team and with 15 or more race starts over the past three years and who also are over the age of 25, there are very few options for Williams to actually pick between. The few which make this shortlist are outlined below:
Felipe Massa – 35 years old – Recently announced his retirement from F1
Esteban Gutierrez – 25 years old – Former Haas and Sauber race driver, Ferrari test driver
Pastor Maldonado – 31 years old – Williams’ most recent race winner, also raced with Lotus
Will Stevens – 25 years old – Raced with Manor in 2015, impressed in sportscars in 2016
Jean-Eric Vergne – 26 years old – Raced with Toro Rosso in 2014, currently in Formula E
Adrian Sutil – 33 years old – Raced with Sauber in 2014, Williams’ 2015 reserve driver
Max Chilton – 25 years old – Raced with Marussia in 2014, currently a Ganassi race driver
Kamui Kobayashi – 30 years old – Raced with Caterham in 2014, currently a Toyota factory driver
2009 champion Jenson Button could also be considered an option, but he is currently contracted to McLaren. Roberto Merhi has 14 starts under his belt and is also omitted from this list. Alexander Rossi made five race starts for Manor back in 2015. Given that he seems happy in IndyCar, it seems very unlikely that he would return to F1 now.
Thoughts on Options
So of those options, Chilton and Kobayashi can be all-but eliminated straight away. Similar could also be said of Vergne, although his Formula E contract may be easy to get out of. Stevens did very little in his sole F1 season, and Gutierrez is the only one of those drivers who is unfamiliar with Williams.
In that case, the only three remaining options for Williams would be former reserve driver Sutil, former racer Maldonado, or the recently-retired Massa.
Unfortunately for Maldonado, his career is remembered more for bringing vast amounts of money to teams, and totalling their cars. However there is some clear natural talent in there, and by the end of 2015 he was showing some genuine pace and control. He was due to race for Renault in 2016, until his state-owned sponsorship dried up completely.
Sutil is one of the most experienced F1 drivers of all time without a podium to his name, and performed solidly against the likes of Giancarlo Fisichella, Vitantonio Liuzzi, and Paul di Resta in his time at Force India. He matched Gutierrez at Sauber in 2014, before being ousted of the team for 2015 despite reportedly having a valid contract. He would be a very underwhelming signing given his lack of success in F1 to date.
Massa’s recent performances have been discussed in length already, but it seems clearer that he is going to be replacing Bottas, who will in turn replace Rosberg at Mercedes. This writer is as disappointed as the next person at this announcement, when so many really hot young drivers are on the table. However, Martini’s requirement for an older driver is so important for a team which relies on such significant sponsorship. Once the wildcards have been omitted from the equation, Massa doesn’t seem like the worst option out there, but he will almost certainly be going one year far too much into what has been a great Grand Prix career.