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It’s wonderfully ironic that Nico Rosberg’s championship victory has proved less exciting than his subsequent retirement.
In part it is because his title was assured, with the exception of a few hairy moments in Abu Dhabi, months ago at October’s Japanese Grand Prix.
Perhaps too it is that retiring with the championship means that Lewis Hamilton, who had been outscored only once by a teammate in Formula One before 2016, will never have the opportunity to win back what the Briton considers a championship lost due to factors exclusively beyond his control.
But in truth what excites most about Rosberg’s resignation is hope for some much needed randomising at the front of the grid. As much as Rosberg as a defending champion would have been an unknown quantity in 2017, putting a completely fresh driver in the second seat at the championship-winning team could represent a completely fresh start.
So who are the candidates for what might be F1’s leading role?
“There are old blokes who may want to come back, then there are young blokes like Pascal [Wehrlein], then there are those in the middle who are all signed up. That’s our range,” said Paddy Lowe at the Autosport Awards, ruling nothing out.
Toto Wolff confirmed the Mercedes net was wide, telling Italy’s Gazetta dello Sport that he’s been called by 80 per cent of drivers – notably more than the three without contracts.
Though Wolff admitted he would be disinclined to interfere with existing contracts between drivers and other teams, he can’t forbid a driver savvy with the fine print of their deal starting the conversation.
The most obvious and perhaps likely contender is Pascal Wehrlein, the only Mercedes junior not tied to a 2017 contract.
The decorated 22-year-old German impressively put Manor into Q2 an unlikely five times this year, and he scored the team’s only point this season – yet Force India snapped up his teammate Esteban Ocon, who has been racing in Formula One since only the midseason break.
Moreover, the fact Mercedes hasn’t already promoted Wehrlein in the more than a week since Wolff learnt of Rosberg’s retirement intentions suggests he isn’t the shoe-in his test-driver status suggests.
Other out-of-contract candidates? Only Esteban Gutierrez and Felipe Nasr, neither of whom have any ties to Mercedes to outweigh their relative lack of experience.
Of the contracted drivers, then, Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas are the most accessible given Mercedes engines power Force India and Williams. Bottas is even part-managed by Toto Wolff.
But losing Perez or Bottas would leave Force India or Williams without a lead driver with only inexperienced candidates left on the market. Given both want to be knocking on the door to the top three next season under new regulations, only the sweetest of deals would win their agreement.
Of a more outlandish probability is the perennially misplaced Fernando Alonso, who is straightjacketed into his third year at McLaren next season. But can the team realistically keep him if he has no faith in their future and wants out?
If contracts exist only to define the conditions of exit and with Jenson Button still on the books as a racing driver, Alonso must be considered in the mix, even if as a rank outsider.
All these options have merit. Wehrlein would validate the Mercedes junior programme. Perez and Bottas are ready to prove their mettle at the front. Alonso is arguably the sport’s best driver and deserving of an equally competitive car.
But there is another.
Carlos Sainz might have signed to stay in the Red Bull family in 2017, but his chances of a Red Bull Racing drive in 2018 are negligible given Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen’s comfort in the lead team.
Papa Sainz, Carlos Sainz Sr., has been whispered as being none too happy about the way his son was left second best amid the politics that promoted Verstappen to the senior team part of the way through this season.
Sainz Jr, as one of the grid’s cleverer drivers, would be an easy match for Rosberg’s famously cerebral approach, he would present a long-term investment to guard against Hamilton’s eventual exit, and in 2016 the Spaniard proved his superlative skills behind the wheel in an outstandingly underwhelming car.
Red Bull would drive a hard bargain, but with willingness in two of the three camps, and with Red Bull running out of space to place its up-and-coming junior drivers anyway, releasing Sainz from Toro Rosso could benefit everyone.
Forget Alonso or a sensational – and sensationally unlikely – Paddy Lowe-Sebastian Vettel swap; Carlos Sainz is the show-stopping signing Mercedes needs.
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