Well, not many saw it coming, yet it managed to make perfect sense. Nico Rosberg’s retirement having achieved what he set out to in Formula One is admirable in many ways, a man wanting to spend time with his family after succeeding in his career goal shouldn’t attract criticism, yet there will have been some in Brackley wishing that perhaps there had been at least a hint of an indication, having signed a new contact as recently as July. Instead, a slightly panicked winter ensued as the team pondered who would be the most suitable replacement for the current world champion.
Mercedes are of course in the fortunate position of having presumably every driver on the grid wishing for a chance to drive one of their silver arrows, but in reality picking a successor wasn’t going to be as straightforward as asking the quickest driver to pack their bags, with whoever coming in needing to be the right fit, for both team and perhaps more importantly, existing personnel.
For all the speculation, Valtteri Bottas seems the obvious choice in reality. Long touted as a possible future world champion, he has shown signs of brilliance during his time at Williams including no fewer than 9 podiums, and with the team seemingly moving backwards down the grid, it wasn’t going to be difficult to tempt him out of his current deal.
The only worry was perhaps that Bottas’ development had stalled somewhat, and with the emergence of many young talents (Verstappen, Sainz, Wehrlein to name three), that there might be better options. But in the end Mercedes chose what on paper appears a safe pair of hands, and Bottas finds himself with the drive of a lifetime, in the seat of the team who have won the last 3 drivers and constructors titles, and favourites to make it four in a row.
But why is he the obvious choice? Well firstly, he’s quick. He has outperformed both teammates he’s been paired with for a start, including veteran and 2008 nearly man Felipe Massa, who despite his aging years was a great benchmark for Bottas to prove his talent against (certainly more so than the erratic Pastor Maldonado, Bottas’ first inter-team opponent). Perhaps the more pertinent reason for Bottas’ promotion though, is his temperament. You’re unlikely to hear stories of disruption involving the Finn, nor is he one to display on track demonstrations of petulance or insolence. After a turbulent few seasons for Mercedes in terms of driver dynamics, this looks like a match made in heaven. This is not to say Bottas isn’t a racer, Kimi Raikkonen will testify to that after his fractious wheel to wheel battles with his countryman, but the sense is that with a one year contract, compliance is the order of the day and Bottas is one to oblige.
But what of Hamilton? Well you have to assume he’s pretty happy with the appointment. You get the impression that the three time world champion is confident he can beat anyone on the grid in equal machinery, which may well be true, but he would of course prefer an opponent like Bottas rather than one of the former world champions who were initially linked. Hamilton will also feel he has something to prove after losing out last year, and will be expecting a 4th world title to equal his rival Sebastian Vettel’s haul. And you have to feel that if he starts the season strongly, that he could coast to it, despite Bottas’ obvious speed.
Hamilton is a driver of exceptional talent, and once he gets momentum becomes almost unstoppable. The problem he will face will be if he repeats last year’s stuttering start and finds himself playing catch up. It’s unlikely his mind games will work on someone as composed as the Finn, and the prospect of losing two world titles to two different drivers in consecutive years that would undoubtedly dampen his reputation, may well result in a loss of composure, not unheard of from Hamilton during times of adversity.
This is also if we are to believe that the rest of the field haven’t closed the gap to prevent what seems the obvious Mercedes 1-2. Whenever there are rule changes, there is undeniably a big opportunity for a grid reshuffle, which both fans and rival teams alike hoping this is the case after years of Mercedes dominance. Ferrari especially are making the right noises, Sebastian Vettel believe significant improvements have been made in the last year, even if they weren’t necessarily showing them on track, and this hasn’t gone unnoticed by their rivals.
But Mercedes seem to have such a strong overall package with huge resources, that it would take a monumental shift to prevent a 4th title. The loss of Paddy Lowe will be felt, not least by Hamilton who had previously enjoyed a close relationship with his fellow Brit, and Lowe had been with the team throughout their recent success. But Mercedes are a team built on solid foundations, they have created an organisation that can sustain the loss even of key personnel, and it would take a brave man to bet against a Hamilton-Mercedes double once again