By Stephen Williams (@SWilliamsF1)
Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article.
Less than a week on from clinching the World Driver's Championship for the first time, Nico Rosberg shocked everyone on Friday by announcing his retirement. It leaves a huge gap to fill at Mercedes, so we take a look at the potential candidates who could replace the German, and become Lewis Hamilton's new team mate.
The Mercedes Young Drivers
The obvious man to replace Nico Rosberg would be the Mercedes young driver Pascal Wehrlein. With the majority of top drivers all under contract for 2017, it would make sense for Mercedes to promote their protege. However, is he really the best Mercedes young driver?
Esteban Ocon partnered Wehrlein for half of the 2016 season and despite being evenly matched, it was Ocon who was promoted to Force India over the more experienced Wehrlein. So does this suggest that Ocon is ranked higher amongst both Mercedes, and the other teams on the grid. Rumour has it that Wehrlein is not that well liked. Perhaps evidence of this was shown in Austin when Wehrlein unwillingly, but eventually switched the engine off after numerous team radio calls, having beached his Manor in the gravel.
It is unsure if Mercedes would be able to release Ocon from his Force India contract if they preferred to take the French driver. If this was the case, presumably Force India would take on Wehrlein instead.
The thought also has to be that Mercedes are reluctant to promote Wehrlein so soon. If he really was the favourite, and next in line, wouldn't the team have announced this by now, or at least not sparked rumours that they are looking for the best possible driver for the role.
Widely regarded as the best driver on the grid, Fernando Alonso is also one of the favourites to move to Mercedes. This could be a cheap deal, if, as some believe, Alonso had arranged a pre-contract with the team around the time he split from Ferrari in 2014. On the other hand, McLaren are likely to force a large fee from Mercedes as the team from Woking will be unwilling to lose their most experienced driver following Jenson Button's retirement.
The team have finished poorly in the Constructors Championship in recent years. Along with the lack of sponsors on the cars, and the hefty fine from Spygate still having an affect, money must surely be tight at the team, so a large pay off from Mercedes may be ideal for both parties. Would McLaren then put Button back in the drivers seat in 2017, rather than retiring, or could he find a way into Rosberg's vacant seat. The chance to fight for the title surely would tempt any racing driver out of a retirement, if the call was to come.
The thought of Hamilton versus Alonso Part II excites most fans. The two were paired together in 2007 at McLaren when Alonso came to the team as a double World Champion and Hamilton as a rookie. They tied on points and both finished one point shy of eventual title winner Kimi Raikkonen. If most people's dream scenario came true, this would surely the be the decider to find out who is better.
Another German in the frame to replace Rosberg would be Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel. The honeymoon period is certainly over and Vettel has just one year left on his current contract. Or does he? Allegedly, there is a clause in Vettel's contract that if the German failed to score a certain amount of points, he could end his contract early. Maybe Ferrari got lucky in Abu Dhabi that Hamilton's tactics of holding up Rosberg which allowed Vettel to finish third, scored him the required points to keep him at Ferrari for at least one more year. And we all thought Ferrari were getting strategy wrong!
Would Sebastian be willing to leave the team and end the dream where his hero Michael Schumacher had a long period of success. Also would he work well in the Mercedes team where he would be unlikely to claim the number one driver status?
Toto Wolff's job may be very simple, hire the driver that you manage, Valterri Bottas. Surely this would be a good move for Mercedes as he has consistently shown his strengths as a points scorer and podium finisher in Formula One. The odds on Bottas moving to Mercedes have shortened significantly since Rosberg's announcement, and it could be the perfect partnership. There is unlikely to be a troublesome relationship with his team mate like with Rosberg and Hamilton. Well initially at least.
If this move was the case, Williams would likely replace him with either of their former development drivers in Felipe Nasr, or Paul Di Resta, who is currently competing in DTM.
There are a number of drivers who have been racing in other categories that could be candidates to take the second seat at Mercedes. Looking at GP2, the champion, Pierre Gasly, is currently without a drive in 2017 as he is unable to defend his title. Following Daniil Kvyat's renewed contract at Toro Rosso, there seems to be no way up for the Frenchman. As such, it is heavily unlikely that any of the Red Bull contracted drivers will make the move to Mercedes, especially given that the regulations for the 2017 season could favour Red Bull. Any attempt to buy Carlos Sainz out of his Red Bull/Toro Rosso contract would not come cheap, but Mercedes would have the financial power to do so.
The runner up in GP2, Antonio Giovinazzi, looks to be a great prospect for the future and has already raced against the likes of Max Verstappen in Formula 3. Are Mercedes willing to take a gamble on these young stars, given the new regulations in 2017?
Looking at Formula E, Sebastian Buemi, the former Toro Rosso driver is a Formula E and World Endurance Champion and is seen as one of the most complete drivers outside Formula One.
Mercedes are unlikely to partner Hamilton with a rookie or inexperienced driver as they need a driver they can rely on to score the points in order to beat Red Bull in the constructors championship. The cars next year are going to be around five seconds a lap quicker than this year's cars, making them more challenging and more physical to drive. However, if they want to build for the future, why not take the Red Bull route of signing up a hot prospect to the team.
According to Mercedes, 80% of current F1 drivers have contacted the team over the vacant seat. Lewis Hamilton has admitted he does not mind who ends up being his team mate next season, just as long as they both receive equal status. In my eyes, there is only one driver who could fit perfectly into the team, Valtteri Bottas.