When Nico Rosberg announced his shock retirement from Formula One at last week’s FIA gala, he left not only the sport’s fans scratching their heads as to the identity of his replacement, but also his former employers’.
After all, despite being the most attractive package on the 2017 grid, Rosberg’s cockpit will not prove an easy one to fill: his successor must be able to cope with the pressures of a frontrunning team, play an active part in defending Mercedes’ world titles from Red Bull et al, provide a worthy and motivational challenger to Lewis Hamilton without upsetting the team dynamic, and – most importantly – be contractually available at such short notice.
With such specific criteria to meet, it’s no wonder Toto Wolff, Paddy Lowe and Niki Lauda are currently bracing themselves for a stressful December that has nothing to do with Christmas shopping queues on Brackley High Street.
Do they stick to their driver development plan and hope Pascal Wehrlein’s inexperience is outweighed by his existing familiarity with the team? Try to lure a more established midfield talent like Bottas or Sainz into a number two role beside Hamilton? Or even chase a box office star like Fernando Alonso, knowing full well the results will come with their fair share of fireworks? Each one of the choices before them is far from ideal, with risks aplenty as well as benefits.
However, the flipside to Rosberg’s sudden retirement is that it presents the Mercedes management with a golden opportunity to resolve certain intra-team issues that have developed over the last few seasons.
With a free seat available, Toto Wolff and his peers now have a clean slate with which to approach their professional relationship with Lewis Hamilton. The free-to-race policy governing Hamilton’s and Rosberg’s time together was clearly a source of great anxiety for the Mercedes pitwall, but so long as the partnership remained a successful one for the Silver Arrows, there was no way Wolff could water down that policy without triggering an outcry from all camps of F1 fans.
But for 2017, the Mercedes rules of engagement are up for complete renegotiation. Wolff has already stated his lack of enthusiasm for replacing Rosberg like-for-like with another world champion – and with another world champion’s ego, of course – and hinted he would prefer a more defined driver hierarchy “a bit like Ferrari at the time of Schumacher and Massa”.
If that’s the new direction Wolff envisions for the Silver Arrows, now is the time to take it. Team orders are hardly what any F1 fan wants to see at the front of the grid, but at least for Mercedes next year there would be some justification to it, given the extraordinary circumstances into which Rosberg’s replacement is about to be thrown.
Indeed, 2017 could be billed as something of a trial period for a new, more cooperative Mercedes, allowing someone like Wehrlein or Bottas time to adjust to being parachuted into a team with everything to lose but without the added pressure of going toe-to-toe with Hamilton for the drivers’ championship. Then, at the end of the season, Wolff, Lowe and Lauda could meet again and decide if they want to return to the old way of parity or continue as they are.
Although many spectators – including Bernie Ecclestone himself – would rather see Fernando Alonso join the Silver Arrows for a fairytale tilt at a third world title, the likelihood is that Mercedes will steer towards calmer waters instead, leaving Formula One to look elsewhere along the grid for the box office battle of 2017.