Bottas favoured, Mercedes stunned, Lauda angry, as Rosberg retires

Mild-mannered Finn Valtteri Bottas has emerged as an early favourite to replace newly-crowned champion Nico Rosberg alongside Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes next season.

Bottas, 27, one of the best-liked and even-tempered drivers, has close links to Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff through his management team and his current team Williams are powered by Mercedes engines.

According to well-informed paddock judges, he has the experience, potential and speed to give stability in performance without the need for Mercedes to take any risks in the rushed recruitment of a big-name star or a highly-rated youngster.

But Wolff, completely surprised by Rosberg’s shock decision to retire from the sport just five days after clinching his one and only title at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, has stressed that he and Mercedes are in no rush to find a driver for what was designated to be next season’s Number One car.

“We have three roads that we can follow,” said Wolff. “The first is to think about having a number one and a number two, a bit like Ferrri at the time of Schumacher and Massa.

“We can take a driver who can guarantee us points in the constructors’ championship.

“The second school of thought is to make use of our junior drivers, Ocon or Wehrlein. After all, other teams have taken a chance on guys like Verstappen or Vandoorne.

“The third path is to go on the market for a top driver.”

Wolff admitted that he preferred to avoid the third option and be drawn into a market-place bidding war – a move that is likely to rule Australian Daniel Ricciardo out as he is under contract at Red Bull, a team that will relish its chances of exploiting a heavily-revised set of technical regulations next season and Mercedes’ loss of their champion driver.  

As Wolff considered his options and revealed that nobody at Mercedes had any inkling that Rosberg was considering retirement if he won the title, his non-executive chairman colleague Niki Lauda said he was very angry with Rosberg when he first heard the news.

“I didn’t here about it until a few hours before the public announcement,” said Lauda. “He told us by phone… I took it badly.

“I didn’t expect it. Nobody in Mercedes imagined that he had had enough.

“At first I didn’t believe it. ‘Nico, what you told us -- are you kidding by any chance? It’s a joke?’ I asked… But he said it was all true. It’s quite incredible.

“When I won the first title I immediately thought about how I would win a second. Not the case with Nico.

“His decision has left us disorientated and unprepared and all those who contributed to Nico winning the world title took it very badly."

Lauda added that finding a replacement was very difficult because all the other top drivers are contracted elsewhere and it would be a risk to promote a young driver.

"We have lost a champion, the best driver of 2016," he said. "It won’t be easy to replace him because all the drivers of a certain standard have contracts with other teams.

“Taking a young driver is a risk. We don’t know if he will be strong…. But, you know, practically half of the grid have offered themselves….”

Both Wolff and Lauda declined to give any names as targets and suggested that Bottas, too, may be beyond their reach, but closer analysis suggests he is the best option.

“It’s not my intention to interfere with internal matters at Ferrari and I don’t even know if Sebastian (Vettel) has a real desire to come to us.

“What would Ferrari or McLaren do without Vettel or Alonso in December? Or Williams without Bottas? The third path I mentioned is the one I like least….”

Rosberg stunned Formula One, if not Lewis Hamilton, when he made his announcement last Friday ahead of the sport’s gala awards evening in Vienna.

"I'm probably one of the only people that it was not a surprise to," said Hamilton. “But that's because I've known him for a long time.

"This is the first time he's won [in their rivalry since karting] in 18 years hence why it was not a surprise that he decided to stop, but he's also got a family to focus on, having children, and Formula One takes so much of your time.

"We started out when we were 13 and we'd always talked about being champions. When I joined this team, Nico was there, which was again something we talked about when we were kids.

"It's going to be very, very strange, and it will be sad not to have him in the team next year. The sport will miss him and I wish him all the best."

Hamilton, his former teenage buddy, Mercedes team-mate and fiercest rival, added that he has no intention to influence the team’s choice of successor for Rosberg.

"I've never been a driver to ever request that… I know a lot of the other drivers, Sebastian [Vettel], Fernando [Alonso], make sure that's in their contracts, but I've just always asked to have equal rights.

"So as long as we are treated fairly then it doesn't matter who is sitting alongside you. We've got great team bosses and I'm sure they will choose the right people to represent them.

"I'm here to race. I still love racing and now the focus is onto next year -- and I'm hoping for a better season.

Rosberg revealed he had started to consider his future, and possible retirement, in Japan in October. By the time he had arrived in Abu Dhabi for the final showdown on November 27, he had made up his mind.

"The thing that gave me most clarity before that race was the thought of 'I'm actually going to win here today and this is going to be my last race -- so let's take it all in'," he said.

"It took away some of that massive pressure. So that was very nice, but it finished as soon as the lights went off because, after that, it was the most intense and crazy, and tough, race of my life.

"Then it was just a process and, on Monday, I didn't know if I had the balls -- so it took a bit of time, but I'm going through with it and I'm feeling great.”

He added that had also made sure that he told Hamilton personally and first-hand of his decision.

"I informed Lewis myself because it's the right way to do it," he said. "We've had such a battle and so many moments fighting each other so I thought it was correct to let him know of my decision.

"I had to do it a bit quick, so I sent Lewis a message. Maybe we'll have a discussion about it later. It has been such short notice because the priority was to let the team know as quickly as possible.

“So that was a bit of a compromise for me -- that I wasn't able to do a perfect job in taking enough time to notify everybody that was close to me."

Rosberg, 31, son of the original ‘flying Finn’ world champion Keke Rosbeg, signed a new two-year deal to stay with Mercedes in July.

Alongside Michael Schumacher, and then Hamilton since 2013, Rosberg has won 23 Grands Prix and taken 30 pole positions.

Despite the shock felt at his announcement, Wolff demonstrated his and Mercedes' dignity when he reacted.

"With Mercedes, Nico has been a relentless competitor, bouncing back from his tough times in an inspirational way, and he earned the respect of the sport with his tenacity, his fighting spirit and his grace under pressure," he said.

"We simply say 'thank you' for the incredible contribution he has made to our success, alongside two of the all-time great drivers, Michael and Lewis….

"This is a brave decision by Nico and a testament to the strength of his character. He has chosen to leave at the pinnacle of his career, as world champion, having achieved his childhood dream.

"The clarity of his judgement meant I accepted his decision straight away when he told me.”  

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