If one ignores the pie-in-the-sky theories and the wishful thinking that is going on at the moment on the Internet, Mercedes really doesn’t have a lot of choices with regard to drivers for 2017. People forget that F1 has long had a system of protecting contracted parties with its Contract Recognition Board (CRB).
Teams accept that they will respect the decisions of this body when they sign their commercial deals with the Formula One group, when they enter the World Championship and in the driver contracts. Drivers agree to accept the CRB decisions when they sign their team contracts. This also means that all parties agree to expressly submit themselves to the exclusive jurisdiction of the CRB and not go to any other legal bodies, such as the High Court. So, in effect, this means that a driver can get out of a contract that has been lodged with the CRB only if there are specific clauses in the contract to allow him to do so; or if the team and the driver can reach a suitable arrangement that means that the contract is declared null and void by both parties. This can happen, but usually involves rather considerable amounts of money changing hands.
The CRB is designed to protect both the teams and the drivers and, generally, it has worked extremely well. So, even if a driver decides that he wants to stop driving for a certain team, for example, he can do that, but he cannot then go off and drive for someone else, until the original contract is finished.
So, it is safe to assume that all the big names at Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull and Renault are stuck where they are. The negotiations for the release of a driver is therefore largely down to money. This effectively means that anyone in the back half of the grid can be poached, if there is a big enough cheque involved.
The retirement of Nico Rosberg means that the Mercedes team has something like $15 million (plus bonuses) available to find a suitable replacement, as Rosberg will not be getting the money that was budgeted for him. Obviously, Mercedes would like to hold on to this money and employ someone cheaper as a saving of $10 million is $10 million in the bank. Thus, if there is a free agent, who is a good enough and will accept a contract worth $5 million (or less), Mercedes will be in a good position. Does anyone fit the bill?
It is extremely unlikely that Mercedes would look beyond the current F1 driver pool, so we can exclude some of the sillier suggestions of drivers from GP2, DTM, IndyCar and so on. We can probably also exclude the two F1 drivers who are retiring from F1 this year: Jenson Button and Felipe Massa. They are the past, not the future.
Looking down the World Championship finishing order, it is clear that Dan Ricciardo, Sebastian Vettel, Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen are all contracted for 2017. Next in the pecking order are Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas. It is unlikely that Force India would agree to part with Perez because there is a large amount of sponsorship tied to the Mexican, even if Mercedes could replace some of that funding with a better engine deal, or whatever. It does not help that Force India did not want Pascal Wehrlein because he might also be offered to the team as part of a deal.
Mercedes has been planning for a long time to bring on its two junior drivers, to one day replace its big name stars, but there is a very decent argument that neither is yet ready to step in to the factory car. Indeed, it would be potentially disastrous to put in a youngster who is not ready, as it might end up destroying their F1 career. Esteban Ocon’s deal with Force India is designed to give him two years to mature and then be available to Mercedes in 2019. As I understand it, he cannot get out of the deal before then, unless there is a financial settlement and Mercedes will not want to pay more than the money that Rosberg’s departure has released. Max Verstappen has shown that it is not impossible for a youngster to step straight in to a top car, but not everyone is Max Verstappen…
The man who is probably most likely to get the Mercedes drive is Valtteri Bottas, who is in the fifth year of a five-year Williams contract. His salary will not be enormous. He is also managed by a company in which Toto Wolff is a shareholder and the Austrian has always had a strong interest in Valtteri’s career. This might raise questions of corporate governance issues for Mercedes but Wolff does not need to be the one negotiating the deal. Niki Lauda can do that.
What would be in it for Williams? Well, the simple answer is money, and the slightly longer answer is money and a closer relationship with Mercedes-Benz. Money can be in the form of cheaper power units, straight cash or even the provision of a replacement driver for free, or a combination of the three. In other words, Williams might be able to ask Mercedes for $10 million to release Bottas and Mercedes would not be losing any money if Bottas was willing to accept $5 million in salary. Frankly, Williams might even get $15 million if Mercedes gave Williams $10 million and Bottas paid the team his first year Mercedes salary, in order for him to get into a winning car. Mercedes might also offer Williams Pascal Wehrlein as a replacement.
At the same time, there is also the fact that a Williams refusal to let Bottas go might not be wise thing in the long-term as Mercedes is not obliged to supply its engines to Williams beyond the term of the contract (whatever that may be) and so it might be wise for Team Willy to stay sweet with Mercedes and get as much as it can, without pushing too far. If Bottas was to move on, Felipe Nasr might be a decent option because he might be able to revive some of his sponsorships if he was going to get into a Williams. Thus, the team could end up with a massive budgetary hike if it lets Bottas go and the money gained could then be used to make the team more competitive in the longer term. Mercedes would benefit from a stronger Williams as it would provide more competition for Mercedes’s rivals – and take points away from them.
The other two names that ought be considered as possibles are Carlos Sainz and Romain Grosjean. The Spanish driver is contracted to Red Bull, but it might consider a buy-out because Sainz’s progress is now hindered by the presence of Ricciardo and Verstappen and Red Bull has a replacement ready in the form of Pierre Gasly. But Red Bull has invested a lot in its young drivers and will not be overly keen to sell them cheaply, so a buyout of Carlos’s contract would not be cheap.
Grosjean is the only driver known to have a “top team” get-out clause in his contract, but what is not clear is whether this clause is Ferrari-specific, or could allow him to go to Mercedes as well. If there is a non-specific clause then Grosjean could be free and would be a decent and easy choice for Mercedes. We know he is a very capable driver and he is hungry for his first win, having come close several times in the past.
While it is not a primary consideration for most drivers, it would be wise for whoever take the seat to get a two-year deal (which would then match what Rosberg had) as a one-year deal might do the replacement more harm than good because stepping into a new team is not always as easy as it sounds and it takes time to settle in.
We will see what happens now, but the smart money seems to be on a deal that will see Bottas moving on and Williams getting a big financial boost. We expect a decision sooner rather than later as the more time a new driver gets with a team, the better he will be in March.