Six weeks after Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement just days after winning his first world title, we now finally have confirmation (via Williams who apparently got bored of waiting for Mercedes to announce it) that Valtteri Bottas will take the vacant seat at Mercedes, with Felipe Massa making the fastest return from retirement in F1 history to fill the vacancy at Williams. What was shaping up to be an uneventful offseason has turned out to be a fascinating period of rumours and behind the scenes deals, with some people emerging in far better shape than others.
The clearest winner in all of this, Bottas is suddenly going to find himself in what will in all likelihood be one of, if not the best seat in F1. Going up against Hamilton in the team he’s called home for four seasons isn’t going to be easy, especially with the lack of preparation he’s going to have to overcome ahead of the first test, but we’re big fans of him here at Back Of The Grid and if he can live up to the future champion label many give him, he should keep the three time champion on his toes.
Despite losing arguably one of the best drivers on the grid to a rival team, Williams aren’t coming out of this situation too badly. The rumoured multi-million euro reduction in engine prices from Mercedes as part of the deal will be very welcome, and with Massa returning they still have an experienced driver to help develop their new car and keep some consistent results coming in. For all of Lance Stroll’s impressive results in junior formulae, he does have a habit of spending his first year in every series crashing into people and picking up penalties. If they can have a decent 2017 and lure another top driver their way for Massa’s retirement part two, they’ll be in a great place, especially with Paddy Lowe joining from Mercedes.
F1 fans who shed a tear at one of the great send-offs Massa enjoyed in Brazil last year may feel a little hard done by, but the apparent ease with which Williams convinced him to return suggests that his decision to retire was very much down to circumstance. He has reportedly gone back on a deal to race in Formula E next year to make his F1 return so he clearly still has the will to go racing and there’s no reason why he can’t continue to compete at a high level. However, Massa was convincingly beaten by Bottas in all three seasons they were teammates and now has to go up against an unknown in the shape of Lance Stroll. If Massa struggles to beat the young Canadian it will be a disappointing footnote on an otherwise impressive career.
The Canadian teenager is coming into F1 with a number of question marks around his lack of experience and how much of landing a drive is down to his billionaire father. Bottas would have been an incredibly tough teammate to go up against in his first year of F1, but Stroll should, on paper at least, find an easier challenge in Massa. Failing to match him, however, won’t do much to convince his detractors that he’s the real deal.
Mercedes were never going to struggle to find another top driver to replace Rosberg, with near enough everyone on the grid reportedly giving Brackley a call despite contracts already being in place at almost every team. In Bottas they have an incredibly talented driver and someone who, like most Finnish drivers before him, seems unlikely to rock the boat and cause the sort of drama we’ve seen so often over the last few seasons. What they (and F1 as a whole) have lost is the marketing clout of having a world champion on the grid and a number one on their car, although it’s impossible to know what kind of champion Rosberg would have been and just how much it will cost Mercedes. With Paddy Lowe departing for Williams too things are far from stable at the German team, but they will still go into 2017 as favourites for both titles.
There isn’t a driver in the world you could put against Lewis Hamilton and not still make an argument that the British driver is favourite for the title. He’s been robbed of the chance to get revenge on Rosberg for the 2016 title, and will arguably have more of a challenge against the comparatively unknown Bottas over his former teammate whom he had the measure of more often than not, but if Mercedes are even close to the level of dominance they’ve enjoyed for the last three years, the world championship is his to lose.
A big part of Bottas’ move is down to Toto Wolff, who has been his manager for many years. While Wolff will now have to relinquish that role, he clearly rates the Finn highly and has been close to him for much of his career. You can almost hear the cries of favouritism the first time the Mercedes teammates clash already, so Toto may still have some driver management challenges ahead of him.
As Mercedes young driver Wehrlein should have been first in the queue for the vacant seat, but after one season in F1 they clearly don’t feel he is ready for a front running car. The likes of Verstappen have proven that age doesn’t necessarily have to be a limiting factor, but with rumours of him being arrogant and difficult to work with coupled with Mercedes overlooking him, his stock has certainly gone down.
Maybe next time Pastor.