Nico Rosberg shocked the Formula 1 world earlier this week by announcing that he was calling time on his career at the pinnacle of motorsport only a few days after securing a maiden world championship crown.
The German, whose retirement comes at the relatively young age of 31, certainly had several more years of solid performance left in him. In light of this, the motivation for his decision, as well as the likely effects of it, are worth discussing.
Why did Rosberg retire?
Rosberg’s decision to retire is likely due to a variety of reasons, some personal and some professional.
On the personal side, the German has always faced a certain level of pressure to repeat the title-winning feats of his father, Keke, who claimed the coveted crown in 1982. Rosberg has made no secret of the fact that to become Formula 1 world champion has been his greatest dream for the past 25 years.
In addition, the 2016 world champion has recently been blessed with a young family, marrying in 2014 and becoming a father in the second half of 2015.
Rosberg’s words and actions on the podium in Abu Dhabi, where he dedicated his title success to his wife and daughter, indicate how closely-knit the young family are.
Having achieved the biggest goal of his life thus far, the German is now free to embark upon new challenges while spending more time with his loved ones.
On the professional side, it is clear that the strain of battling with a driver of Lewis Hamilton’s quality for the past few years has taken its toll on Rosberg.
2016 represented the best chance that the German has ever had to win a maiden crown, partially due to the superiority of the Mercedes W07 and partially because his own performance level has been at its highest-ever level this year.
While the privilege to pilot a Mercedes and achieve success is one that any driver on the grid would jump at, it has come at a cost for Rosberg. Tensions between himself and Hamilton (who remains the superior driver on balance, even if the German has enjoyed a strong year) have gradually escalated over the years.
In addition, the significant rule changes that come into effect from 2017 onwards mean that there is no guarantee that the Silver Arrows squad will enjoy the same level of dominance next year.
It is widely expected that Red Bull will be fighting Mercedes for glory next year, and it may be that the prospect of such a battle, as well as resumed hostilities with Hamilton, represents a level of strain that Rosberg would rather not subject himself to.
2016 represents the first time that the German has defeated Hamilton over the course of a season since their karting days as youngsters. To be frank, it is unlikely to happen again. This is not to diminish Rosberg’s achievements, because Hamilton is one of the sport’s great champions.
In effect, however, Rosberg has reached the peak of his powers, and is happy to leave it at that, rather than giving Hamilton a chance to restore the status quo next year. Objectively seen, the German’s Formula 1 record of 23 victories, 30 pole positions, 57 podiums and a world title in 206 starts is one to be admired.
Perhaps, all things considered, it is enough for him.
Who will replace Rosberg at Mercedes?
Rosberg’s unexpected announcement has blown new life into a driver market season that seemed to be reaching its end without any major surprises. The top teams confirmed their line ups early on, and while the chasing pack has seen a fair amount of driver reshuffling, there was little that shocked the F1 community.
Now, everything has changed. Unless Rosberg makes a decision to reverse his decision, and this reversal is accepted by Mercedes, the German manufacturer will be forced to find someone to take over the world champion’s seat.
There are a variety of candidates available to replace him, although not all potential signatures will be equally easy to secure.
The first two candidates that spring to mind to replace Rosberg are Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel.
The Spaniard is still craving a third world title before the end of his career. While he has often publicly stated his commitment to the McLaren-Honda project, there is no guarantee that the Woking-based team will provided the two-time champion with the machinery needed to showcase his talents. The only concern is his potential relationship with Hamilton. There was no shortage of ill feeling when the two were teammates at McLaren in 2007, but on the other hand, both have become older and wiser since then.
Your 2016 podium:
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 3, 2016
For his part, Vettel is clearly frustrated at a Ferrari team that appeared to lose direction after the departure of Technical Director James Allison earlier this year. The German is an experienced, high-quality driver, and at the age of 29, is young enough for Mercedes to build a team around should Hamilton leave for any reason in the future.
Both of these drivers have one year left on their respective contracts, but Mercedes have no shortage of finances and are certainly capable of buying either of them out of their current obligations.
Another candidate may be Valtteri Bottas. Toto Wolff is part of the Finn’s management group, and while talented, it is unlikely that the Williams man would be able to overcome Hamilton over the course of a season.
In addition, Bottas’ personality is not of such a nature as to cause tension within the team, which is an important consideration. Furthermore, a move from Williams to Mercedes for the Finn would potentially allow for Pascal Wehrlein, a Mercedes junior driver, to be promoted from Manor to Williams in order to prepare him for an eventual seat in a silver car.
It is even conceivable that Wehrlein, who only joined the grid this year, may be Rosberg’s replacement. However, given that both Hamilton and Rosberg were signed until the end of 2018, it is probable that Mercedes were aiming at giving the youngster more time to gain experience before promoting him to the sharp end of proceedings.
If he becomes a Mercedes driver for 2017, he will have to be competitive from the first lap, especially if Red Bull produce a strong car.
Finally, Mercedes may even test their ability to lure Max Verstappen or Daniel Ricciardo away from Red Bull, but this would be difficult. Both drivers are comfortable and secure within a team that appears ready to make a genuine title bid in 2017. Furthermore, once the Red Bull door is shut, it is unlikely to open again. On balance, therefore, both Verstappen and Ricciardo are likely to remain where they are.
— MERCEDES AMG F1 (@MercedesAMGF1) December 2, 2016
A final option for Mercedes may be Carlos Sainz. The Spaniard has enjoyed an impressive season at Toro Rosso, but finds his way to the Red Bull senior team blocked by Verstappen and Ricciardo, neither of whom are likely to move soon. A shock move from Toro Rosso to Mercedes could inject new momentum into the 22-year old’s career, given that he is unlikely to be content with remaining at Toro Rosso after next year.
On the whole, Nico Rosberg’s decision to wave goodbye to Formula 1 has opened up a whole variety of possible scenarios, all of which may produce a variety of different outcomes.
For his part, however, the German can rest easy, secure in the knowledge that he has accomplished a childhood dream, and one that only 32 other drivers have ever replicated. That is something that nobody will ever take away from him. But for those who remain behind the F1 paddock, things are about to get more interesting.
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