Nico Rosberg's shock retirement

Motor racing: Vettel, Alonso among options for Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton and third-placed Sebastian Vettel celebrating on the podium after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Nov 27. The two drivers have seven world titles between them.
Lewis Hamilton and third-placed Sebastian Vettel celebrating on the podium after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Nov 27. The two drivers have seven world titles between them.PHOTO: REUTERS

Wolff to ponder replacement for Rosberg as Hamilton says he will not influence decision

LONDON • Lewis Hamilton lost the battle but won the war. He dominated Nico Rosberg from karting to Formula One and when the German finally won his world title, the strain was so great that he had to walk away from the sport.

Now Mercedes have to find a driver with the mental strength to stand up to Hamilton.

In one fell swoop, Rosberg's retirement solved the troubling predicament facing Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes Motorsport.

Hamilton made it well known that he blamed his team for failing to give him a reliable car and his psychological games during the final grand prix of the season in Abu Dhabi signalled major trouble ahead for Wolff and Rosberg.

Wolff's threats to fine, suspend or sack Hamilton for "anarchy" in Abu Dhabi when he did his best to sabotage Rosberg's title attempt are now consigned to the bin.

The Austrian's only concern now is to find a driver of stature who has a chance of competing with a team-mate ruthless enough to discard a gentlemen's agreement to pursue his quest for glory.

SETTING THE AGENDA

As long as we're treated fairly then it doesn't matter who is sitting next to you. I am interested to see who would want to be my team-mate and respect anyone who would want to.

LEWIS HAMILTON , Mercedes star, says he will not try to sway team principal Toto Wolff's decision over the hiring of his new team-mate.

There will be no more need to balance team-mates who have been at loggerheads for three seasons - but the alternative could be even trickier.

Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, the disgruntled Spaniard at McLaren and Max Verstappen, Red Bull's prodigious teen talent, are all in the frame.

  • Others who went out on a high

  • ALAIN PROST, FORMULA ONE

    Retired: In 1993 at age 38, after his fourth and final world drivers' title.

    The Frenchman returned from a sabbatical in 1992 to beat McLaren's Ayrton Senna and Williams team-mate Damon Hill.

    Like Rosberg with stablemate Lewis Hamilton, Prost had his own feuds with Senna at McLaren in the late 1980s and with Nigel Mansell at Ferrari in 1990.


    ERIC CANTONA, FOOTBALL

    Retired: In 1997 at age 30 after his fifth and final English league crown, the first with Leeds and then the next four with Manchester United.

    The enigmatic Frenchman, who also won two titles back home with Marseille, hung up his boots, grew a big beard and starred in a biopic film about Queen Elizabeth I alongside Cate Blanchett and Richard Attenborough.


    MARION BARTOLI, TENNIS

    Retired: In 2013 at age 28 after becoming Wimbledon champion for the first time.

    Six years after being hammered by Venus Williams in her first Wimbledon final, Bartoli earned redemption by beating Sabine Lisicki to break her Grand Slam duck after a 13-year career.

    Forty days later, she lost to Simona Halep at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati, cried in her post-match press conference and said: "I just can't do it anymore."


    MARK SPITZ, SWIMMING

    Retired: In 1972 at age 22 after winning seven Olympic golds - four of them individual - in the Munich Games.

    Rosberg might think he is going out in style but, compared to Spitz, it is a mere whimper.

    The American, whose moustache was as smooth as his freestyle, won his ninth Olympic gold before instantly calling time on his career.

    "I didn't have a future in swimming because we couldn't make money, the rules were different back then," he said in 2011.


    BOBBY JONES, GOLF

    Retired: In 1930 at age 28 after completing the Grand Slam of his era (US and UK Open and Amateur Championships) in 1930.

    He won five US Amateur Championships, four US Opens and four Opens, having played 31 Majors and finishing in the top 10 in 27 of them.

    Then, the American retired to pursue greater riches elsewhere. Of his period of dominance, Jones once said: "I was full of pie, ice cream and inexperience. To me, golf was just a game to beat someone. I didn't know that someone was me."

Mercedes' Twitter account spent the hours after Rosberg's announcement cheekily re-tweeting mock application letters from the public, and it was not long before Verstappen reacted.

"My job application is at least the best from the ones you got sent, isn't it?" the Dutch teenager said.

To which Mercedes replied: "When you put it like that... see you at 09:00 Monday morning? Bring cake. We like cake."

Hamilton has said that he will not try to influence Wolff's decision but could not resist a dig in his analysis of Rosberg's retirement.

"This is the first time he has won a title in 18 years, which is why it was not a surprise that he decided to stop," the Briton said.

"As long as we're treated fairly then it doesn't matter who is sitting next to you. I am interested to see who would want to be my team-mate and respect anyone who would want to."

All of the top drivers are under contract, but that is mere bureaucracy in a sport where money talks and ambition rules.

The early money will be on Vettel, who is desperately unhappy at Ferrari and has a year to run on his massive deal with the Scuderia.

Ferrari pay the German the biggest salary in F1 at £30 million (S$54.1 million) a year but it seems that neither would be unhappy to call off their relationship.

Alonso may already have hit the call button to Wolff. After two horrible seasons at McLaren and little prospect of competing for honours next season, the bookies' favourite talks loyalty but wants out.

The question for Wolff is whether teaming the quixotic Alonso with Hamilton would be worth the potential pain.

Alonso lasted a season with Hamilton at McLaren and Wolff could be plunged into the role of referee between two competing egos in a match much rougher than any confrontation between Hamilton and the gentlemanly Rosberg.

Verstappen would be the people's choice but he signed a "golden handcuffs" deal when Red Bull realised how good the 19-year-old was going to be.

The outside bet is the promotion of Pascal Wehrlein, the driver being groomed by Mercedes. He has had a year at Manor Racing but few believe the 22-year-old would be prepared to withstand the mental challenge of driving against a seasoned campaigner like Hamilton.

It should be remembered though that "never say never" is one of F1's most popular sayings and the sport - as Rosberg showed only too clearly on Friday - is full of surprises.

THE TIMES, LONDON, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 04, 2016, with the headline 'Vettel, Alonso among options for Mercedes'. Print Edition | Subscribe