As emotions soured and champagne flowed in the wake of Nico Rosberg’s world title glory on Sunday, the soap opera that is Formula One couldn’t resist blowing into the Mercedes garage one last note of bitterness to round out the year.
With a world championship on the line, the events and fallout from the 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix were always going to be a talking point long after the chequered flag had fallen. But even I hardly expected to wake up on Monday morning to a global media aflame with reports that Hamilton was now facing the sack for his actions at the weekend.
The seed for these reports comes from comments made by Toto Wolff shortly after the race. When speaking to Channel 4, Wolff said that Hamilton’s public refusal to heed pitwall instructions to protect the race win risked setting a precedent for “anarchy” within the team: “Undermining a structure in public means you are putting yourself before the team. It is very simple. Anarchy does not work in any team.”
Wolff then added that he has not yet decided whether to let the matter lie given the circumstances of the championship battle, or to uphold the team rulebook as if Abu Dhabi were any other race in the season.
It is not the first time we have been here, of course. At the end of 2015 Wolff issued a stark warning to both of his drivers that if the tense dynamic of their championship rivalry showed signs of hurting the team, he would be forced to consider a change in lineup. Team unity is a key part of Wolff’s Mercedes philosophy – irrespective of stature, everyone must be prepared to play the team’s game before their own.
It’s worth remembering that Wolff’s “anarchy” comments on Sunday night were not just a reaction to a single isolated incident. Relations between Hamilton and the Mercedes hierarchy have been tenser than ever this season, with the Briton’s conduct in the media serving to drive a wedge between him and Wolff. Incidents such as Hamilton’s accusatory reaction to his early engine failures and “Snapgate” in Japan have left Mercedes fighting PR fires all year – even as late as the final press conference of the season, when Hamilton suggested there was a shady reason behind Mercedes shuffling his and Rosberg’s garage mechanics around that he would one day reveal in a tell-all memoir.
Add to that the torrent of social media abuse to which Mercedes has been subjected by Hamilton’s more hardcore fans each time the Briton suffers the slightest misfortune, and you can understand why Wolff might be beginning to tire of the turmoil that comes hand-in-hand with his star driver.
But although in the past rumours of shock changes to the Mercedes lineup have come to nothing, much of that was because of the relationship built on mutual need between Hamilton and the team – a relationship that has fundamentally changed this season.
When Hamilton signed with Mercedes back in 2012, he was very much a necessary asset for the team. The Silver Arrows had been operating as a full works team for three years, but for all their high hopes with Michael Schumacher had still not made their mark beyond one victory and a handful of podiums. Heavy investment was coming for the beginning of the V6 turbo era in 2014, but the team still needed a figure like Hamilton – a world champion and winner of multiple Grands Prix – who could inject the kind of momentum that Schumacher sadly couldn’t and become the team leader Rosberg was not yet ready to be.
But fast forward four years, and that situation is no longer present. With three constructors’ and drivers’ titles to its name, and not to mention fifty-four Grand Prix victories along the way, Mercedes is no longer in need of a star driver to galvanise its potential: indeed, by placing Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon into F1 this season, Mercedes has already shown it is eyeing up the next challenge of fostering a young talent through its ranks and preparing for a future without Hamilton or Rosberg.
Furthermore, Rosberg’s triumph in the world championship this year after being soundly beaten by Hamilton in 2015 has shown that Mercedes is not reliant on one driver for success, should a change in the lineup need to happen.
So, now possessed of both motive and opportunity, is Mercedes about to make its most surprising driver announcement since hiring Lewis Hamilton four years ago?
If you ask me, I doubt it. With a world title to defend amidst a radical regulations overhaul in 2017, the last thing Mercedes wants is to throw a brand-new driver into the mix. The team has everything to lose by doing so: especially when Ocon, however talented, only has nine Grand Prix starts to his name, and there are still serious question marks about Wehrlein’s ability to settle his ego into a Formula One team.
However, that won’t be the case for long: by the time Hamilton’s current contract runs out in 2018, both Wehrlein and Ocon will have put several seasons’ experience under their belts. And once that next generation is in place, Hamilton will find his platform for negotiating a renewed deal that much smaller, whilst Wolff will no doubt have a long list of incidents like those in Abu Dhabi compiled against him.
But whoever ends up driving the Mercedes over the next few years, I don’t think we’ll be done with the 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix just yet.