Open season? Mercedes must poach for Rosberg’s replacement

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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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.

    Follow @MichaelLamonato on Twitter

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart ? but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (10)

    • Roar Rookie

      December 6th 2016 @ 12:35pm
      mattatooski said | December 6th 2016 @ 12:35pm | ! Report

      I too think Sainz may be the winner. I don’t think red bull would stand in his way, especially as they have another rookie waiting in the wings to replace him straight away in Pierre Gasly. I reckon that Kyvat might be trying his hardest to get a look at the mercedes seat, especially after the way Red Bull treated him earlier in the season.

      What a xmas present for whoever gets the seat.

      • Columnist

        December 7th 2016 @ 9:31am
        Michael Lamonato said | December 7th 2016 @ 9:31am | ! Report

        Yeah, exactly. Red Bull have options to replace Sainz. They’ll drive a hard bargain given how much they’ve invested in his junior career, but it’d be cruel to prevent him altogether from career progress.

        I’m sure Kvyat is keeping his eyes open as to other opportunities elsewhere, but the question is whether anyone wants him! He’d have been a fit for Sauber in the event STR hadn’t renewed his contract, I think.

    • December 6th 2016 @ 5:59pm
      Stewart said | December 6th 2016 @ 5:59pm | ! Report

      Piffle Micheal, you missed the blindingly obvious choice – SUSIE WOLFF.

      • Columnist

        December 7th 2016 @ 9:32am
        Michael Lamonato said | December 7th 2016 @ 9:32am | ! Report

        Ha, she’s pregnant! Maybe they could put Toto in to keep the seat warm?

    • December 7th 2016 @ 2:18am
      steve said | December 7th 2016 @ 2:18am | ! Report

      It will be interesting to see who they eventually put in Nico’s seat. Perez, Sainz, Wehrlein will all be looked at I would think. I would be most interested to know Daniel Ricciardo’s real and private thoughts about staying at Red Bull with Max Verstappen. After reading a recent interview with Helmut Marko, it would appear to me that there is a clear favourite in the team between Daniel and Max, and it doesn’t seem to be in Daniels favour. I wonder if the best thing Daniel could do is make a switch to Mercedes? I would argue that he would be equal favourite for the drivers title with Lewis. Mercedes would get a proven Grand Prix winner, Daniel would get a genuine title shot and Red Bull make a little room to move Carlos Sainz up to the main team, allowing Gasly to slot in at Toro Rosso. Helmut Marko also gets what he wants, Max Verstappen the clear number one driver at Red Bull.

      It would be most interesting to know if such a scenario has been spoken about by Marko and Christian Horner over at Milton Keynes. Would Daniel want to jump at it? Id be interested to know. I just get this feeling Daniel is setting himself up for a world of hurt in the coming seasons at Red Bull. As I said, I think the team clearly favours Max, if someone is going to win a drivers title for Red Bull in the coming seasons, you can almost be assured they will want it to be Max Verstappen.

      • Roar Guru

        December 7th 2016 @ 8:32am
        NCB619 said | December 7th 2016 @ 8:32am | ! Report

        I think in the next year or so, It’s going to be just like Webber and Vettel

        • Columnist

          December 7th 2016 @ 9:42am
          Michael Lamonato said | December 7th 2016 @ 9:42am | ! Report

          Perhaps. But Daniel is every bit — in fact more so, given Verstappen was picked up more recently — the product of the Red Bull programme that Max is, so I’m not sure I believe that there is any preference. Both are marketable for different reasons, and both are obviously extremely quick and capable of racing at close quarters.

          Maybe we’ll see that change in a battle for the world title, but I’d be surprised.

      • Columnist

        December 7th 2016 @ 9:39am
        Michael Lamonato said | December 7th 2016 @ 9:39am | ! Report

        I don’t know if the team clearly does favour Max. Helmut and Dietrich obviously like him because he’s marketable, but don’t forget they can only answer the questions they’re asked, and everyone’s always asking about Max.

        I don’t believe it’s even as strong as that ’emotional preference’ Mark Webber used to talk about — whereas Mark was always on the outer because he wasn’t a product of the Red Bull system, Daniel is one of their own, so they’re every bit as invested in his success as they are in Max succeeding.

        As for whether it’s in Daniel favour to be partnered with him, I know Max is good, but is he better than Hamilton? I know Lewis is often over-hyped, but he’s still perhaps the quickest guy out there. I don’t know that one would be better with the other — and in any case we shouldn’t discount that Ricciardo exists in the same category as both!

        • December 7th 2016 @ 10:08am
          Mad Dog said | December 7th 2016 @ 10:08am | ! Report

          No disrespect do Daniel, but Max is pretty openly talked about as one of the greatest talents the sport has ever seen. I cant see them holding him back.

          • Columnist

            December 7th 2016 @ 10:19am
            Michael Lamonato said | December 7th 2016 @ 10:19am | ! Report

            I don’t think it has anything to do with holding anyone back. If Max beats him, he beats him; and vice versa. There doesn’t have to be anything political about racing. Hamilton beat Rosberg two season in a row at Mercedes, but Rosberg was never put at a disadvantage as a result.

            Were Max to give Daniel a real drubbing, what happens afterwards is an interesting question — but that’s hypothetical.

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