By Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief
The 2017 Formula 1 season is drawing near and with it hopeful answers to the uncertainty that looms over it. The big elephant in the room is who will be replacing reigning world champion Nico Rosberg at Mercedes?
Several speculate that Toto Wolff is set on bringing in Valtteri Bottas from Williams to pilot alongside Lewis Hamilton. Bottas is remarkably talented, but there are reasons to halt that idea and go a different direction.
There is a good chance that whoever takes over the seat is on a one year flyer – a tryout, if you will – to get a better vision for the direction the team should go for the longterm.
Enter Pascal Wehrlein.
The 22-year-old German is coming off of a solid rookie campaign with Manor, having scored a point in the Austrian Grand Prix – a remarkable task for the traditional backmarker squad. Wehrlein is also a part of the Mercedes development driver program and spent 2015 as the test driver for both the factory team and Force India – the same year he won the DTM title.
A German driver replacing another German driver, on a German team – maybe that just makes too much sense.
Some believe that putting Wehrlein in the car is a risk, but what good is being a development driver and accomplishing each goal set forth with Mercedes if they never give you the drive?
If he fails, well, there is always Esteban Ocon. Similar to Wehrlein, Ocon is also a development driver with Mercedes and ran nine races alongside the German at Manor – having outpaced him in six of those contests.
The 20-year-old Frenchman is put in high regard by Wolff and Niki Lauda, a three-time champion who is also a Mercedes non-executive chairman, but is still incredibly raw. Having won both European F3 and GP3 Series titles in back-to-back seasons in 2014-15, Ocon has also leveled every goal set in front of him and could be Mercedes’ answer to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, but another year of seasoning before the call up couldn’t hurt.
Ocon’s path has moved to Force India (while still under the Mercedes umbrella), a team that recently finished fourth in the constructors’ championship.
Wehrlein, well if he doesn’t get the nod, he will likely pilot a seat at Sauber – which lately has spelled disaster for F1’s youth.
Backtracking to Bottas – he did score the lone podium for Williams, which came at the Canadian Grand Prix. However, he only managed to outscore teammate Felipe Massa in 12 out of the 21 rounds and each season over the last three years he has consistently dropped in the championship standings (fourth in 2014, fifth in 2015 and eighth in 2016).
Part of the performance drop does fall on Williams and their inability to keep up with Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull and even Force India, but part of that blame also rests on the drivers for their inability to progress the car with proper feedback.
In a year when development is the vital component, is Bottas really the right driver to help forward progress to the maximum or does his feedback only help get 70 percent of what its potential is?
Also factor in the loss of Executive Director Paddy Lowe (who is rumored to join Williams, oddly enough). The real question then becomes, how much change does Mercedes really want to endure?
A championship culture eventually ends not due to a lack of effort, but more on the lack of consistency due to change.
It is for these reasons that make all the more sense for Mercedes to ‘keep it in the family’ and go with the unproven – yet still proven – Wehrlein.
If not now, when?