When I saw the news this past Thursday that Nico Rosberg had retired in the immediate aftermath of his first drivers’ championship, I was as shocked as anyone else. However, my mind almost immediately shifted from the present to the future. I immediately began to consider who could take Rosberg’s seat this late in the silly season. The Mercedes F1 ride is probably the most coveted in all of motorsports, even with a radically new set of technical regulations coming in 2017. Several very talented drivers who were free agents have already been signed to mid-level teams or worse for next season. The magnitude of the opportunity at Mercedes F1 would appear to command a proven talent. However, in my opinion, this is the right time for Mercedes F1 to try something new. This is the time for Mercedes to find out what they have in Pascal Wehrlein.
Some would argue other drivers have done more prove themselves than young Pascal. Fernando Alonso in the underachieving McLaren, Valtteri Bottas in the declining Williams, or Nico Hulkenburg at a rebuilding Renault F1 would represent logical steps toward assured success. A recently retired Jenson Button may be able to get out of his McLaren connections for one last shot at a second title. Even an Esteban Ocon, who was promoted to the better-performing Force India squad over Wehrlein, could be in the running.
However, to me, none of those choices make as much sense as Wehrlein. While Alonso, and to a lesser degree Bottas and Hulkenburg, represent the best, quasi-available talent in the sport, their respective contract situations would need time to be worked out. There would probably have to be a fair bit of money involved in springing them from their current commitments. Furthermore, in the case of Alonso and Button, their proven talent may not be as valuable to the Silver Arrows as it first appears. Sure, either driver behind the wheel of a Mercedes package would make Mercedes a double threat for victory every grand prix. However, Mercedes has Lewis Hamilton, who is coming off his most unlucky season in recent memory. Without the likes of a Rosberg to challenge him in the other Mercedes seat, Hamilton represents the by far strongest threat for a championship in the paddock. Mercedes F1, therefore, does not need a second driver in order to be a threat in 2017. Moreover, it was the drama with a seasoned Nico Rosberg that seemed to drive the tension that has probably shot Toto Wolff and Patty Lowe’s blood pressure through the garage ceiling on more than one occasion.
As for the young Ocon, his talent became very apparent in 2016. Even though Wehrlein beat Ocon in qualifying on 6 out of 8 occasions (Ocon did not get out for qualifying at the Italian Grand Prix), Ocon outraced Wehrlein 6-3, including the last three races in a row. However, in my opinion, he does not have enough Formula 1 experience be given the reigns to a factory ride just yet. Ocon’s time will inevitably come, but it is a big risk to put a relatively unproven talent in the hot seat of a factory ride. I would have made the same case for Verstappen in 2014. Even the baby-faced assassin got a full season of seat time at a junior team before getting bumped up. Plus, Verstappen’s call up to the senior squad in 2016 was not Red Bull’s strategy going into the season.
To me, Wehrlein is the best choice for several reasons. Chief among those reasons is timing. Not only are we essentially past the silly season, but Wehrlein could not have asked for a better time to move up. With Lewis Hamilton leading Mercedes’ charge next season, Wehrlein can develop in the factory car without having too much pressure on him. Sure, he will be expected to perform, same as Ocon would. But Wehrlein has already won a championship in DTM, which is a pretty elite touring car series. Wehrlein has proven he can handle the pressure in a top-level championship and still come out on top. Moreover, Wehrlien won his DTM championship with consistency, as he was able to bring his car to the checkers every round. The biggest asset a number two drivers can have is consistently finishing races in the points.
Second, with the new technical regulations coming in 2017, having someone who has already gone through a full season working with Formula 1 engineers would be invaluable to Mercedes. Third, If Mercedes bring on someone like Alonso, then in 2-3 years both Alonso and Hamilton may well be gone. Mercedes F1 would then have two drivers who would not have factory-level experience in F1. Now is the time, to use a Steve Matchett phrase, for Mercedes to put Wehrlein in the car and find out what they have in him.
If he doesn’t work out, Mercedes can just send him back to DTM to rack up a few more championships there. If he does do well, Mercedes will not have to put up with Hamilton’s antics unless they really want to. They will have a proven Wehrlein in one car, and Ocon waiting to come up and take Lewis’ place in the other car. If you are going to be like Mercedes, Red Bull and Renault and have young driver development programs, you need to actually use the drivers now and again to justify the program’s cost. Sure, Wehrlein or Ocon could jump ship in the future like Vettal did. But if a team is as good as Mercedes is right now, it needs to take up the opportunity to ensure their foreseeable future now.