It’s exhausting just trying to keep up with all the latest daft theories about who will drive the second Mercedes next year, and it seems to me that the choices are becoming fewer with each passing day. Valtteri Bottas was the obvious candidate, for me at least, but it seems that it would be rather complicated to extract him from Williams, not just in terms of funding, but also because of other contracts that the team has, which require him (or someone similar) to be there next year.
So why all the fuss about Mercedes and Fernando Alonso? Well, Toto Wolff was not lying when he said that one must consider a driver like Alonso. Of course you must. So, let’s consider him: great driver, under contract to McLaren. End of story. It doesn’t hurt Fernando to be seen as the target and Mercedes has nothing to lose from a bunch of screaming headlines. The underlying message here is “Fernando wants to drive our car” which is a positive message for Mercedes. When he isn’t allowed to, then it will be those mean spoil sports at McLaren and Honda who have stopped it happening…
But, figure this as well. If Fernando Alonso were to have a pixie with magic dust to sprinkle on the right people and make them release him, what would be the message next year were he to drive around in a Mercedes and win some races? The message would be: Fernando Alonso is brilliant. If a relative nobody gets into the second Mercedes and does well, the message is “Mercedes Benz gives you wings” (to borrow a phrase from another sponsor). Which story will sell more Mercedes road cars?
This means that the focus now seems to have switched to the question of whether Pascal Wehrlein is ready to do the job. We know that Pascal is quick, but he is obviously not yet perfect or else Force India would have gone for him, rather than Esteban Ocon. He’s a good qualifier and does great work at the start of races but he has tended to do less well in terms of race strategies. This is pretty normal for a youngster and it takes time to learn. Does he suit what Mercedes really wants for 2017? It needs a driver who can deliver solid results, so that it can maintain a strong challenge in the Constructors’ Chanpionship which, of course, is what pays the bills. This year the team collected an impressive 765 points, almost 300 more than runner-up Red Bull Racing. There were 19 wins in 21 races. It was a steamroller. One assumes that the team will still be pretty competitive next year but there is no doubt that Ferrari and Renault have been working hard on engine development in order to push up the number of horses they have available. This is logical. If they can get closer to the Mercs in terms of oomph, then the aerodynamics and vehicle dynamics can then kick in. Without the horsepower, nothing is going to happen…
So, what Mercedes probably needs is not two stars fighting each other, but rather one star being supported by a solid driver so that the team will be in the fight if the others do catch up. It is a risk whatever happens, but I am beginning to feel that the drive will end up with Wehrlein because the team will save a lot of money on salaries and if it does not give the youngster the chance, it will also undermine the young driver programme, which is designed to create cheap replacements for the stars of today. With an opportunity to use a youngster, and a German one at that, Mercedes may simply conclude that Wehrlein has to be the right choice.
Time will tell, but I think this is what will now happen. That might pop a few balloons in the weird world of fan speculation, but it will probably tick the right boxes in Stuttgart. The worst case scenario is that Wehrlein will be beaten by others. The best case is that he will sometimes beat Lewis Hamilton. The middle assessment is that he will finish second to Hamilton a lot. Who could really expect more of him than that? The money saved on Rosberg’s contract will be useful one way or another.
So let’s see, but don’t get too excited about Alonso and Uncle Tom Cobbly. This may end up being an internal promotion.