Niki Lauda is getting feisty when it comes to Mercedes AMG’s driver search. Initially he slammed Rosberg’s decision to retire and what that means for the Merc team. Now that he has appeared to get over that, he’s getting into it with Red Bull Advisor Helmut Marko. Both men recently appeared on ServusTV’s Sport und Talk show and they got into a fairly spirited discussion regarding the direction they feel Mercedes should go with their driver decision.
If you watched this weeks In Case You Missed It you’ll undoubtedly know I boldly predicted Pascal Wehrlein would get the vacant Mercedes driver position. To me it made too much sense. Wehrlein has shown speed while driving for Manor plus he is a part of the Mercedes young driver program, which means he would be an inexpensive option. However it appears Felipe Massa’s un-retirement has swung the pendulum in favor of Valtteri Bottas. Bottas brings with him the benefit of speed and experience. Marko doesn’t like that idea. He feels if you have a young driver program, you should use it.
“You have a junior program and you have the highly regarded Mr. Wehrlein,” Marko said. “This guy Wehrlein does not look like he will get the drive. That means you do not trust your own junior program.”
Marko comes from the Red Bull camp, which firmly believes in an intensive junior program and then promoting drivers from within. Red Bull does not go out and sign big name free agents, it’s not in their nature. So in essence Marko’s words were, Red Bull’s program is better and you should follow our example instead of signing the best available free agent. Thems be fighting words. I mean there are definitely things you say to Niki Lauda that will wind him up. Putting words into his mouth is at the very top of that list. Lauda’s response was predictable, go on the attack instead of defend.
“I must correct that. The junior program is, as you say, a junior program.” Lauda said. “Young drivers should gain experience. Clearly, we can discuss whether Wehrlein is ready or not, but don’t forget that Max Verstappen first started out at Toro Rosso this year until the Russian [Daniil Kvyat] made a mistake and only then did you take him over to the senior team.”
As always there is a grain of truth in what Lauda says. Yes Max Verstappen started last season with Toro Rosso and he wasn’t expected to be ready for the senior team at the beginning of 2016. We now know, not only was he ready for Red Bull’s senior team, given the correct car, Verstappen is ready to compete for championships. Is Wehrlein ready to make a Verstappen-ian like rise? Probably not but I think he was worthy of making the step up to the Mercedes senior squad. Bottas is probably the safer of the 2 options. He will probably get up to speed and familiar with all the dynamics slightly quicker then Wehrlein.
“Well, Wehrlein is still very young, but no risk, no fun,” Marko said. “If you take Valtteri Bottas, you have to give a two-digit million amount in the form of a reduction in engine costs to Williams. OK, you have a budget of 22 million now that you are not paying Rosberg, but then you would have to buy Wehrlein a drive at a team that drives a competitor’s engine.”
That last bit is the interesting part, “Drives a competitor’s engine”. What does that mean you wonder? That is in reference to the talks that have already take place with Sauber. Sauber runs Ferrari power. This is either very coy devious planning from Mercedes or a potential tactical error. On the one hand having one of your contracted drivers drive a car with your competitors engine (not top spec but still a Ferrari engine) could provide to be a brilliant move of Formula 1 espionage. Orrrrr it could be the first step down a path that leads to Wehrlein never driving for the senior Mercedes AMG F1 team. A path that sees him drive for one of Merc’s rivals.
Just break it down and you can already start to see the writing getting close to being on the wall. Were not there yet but were getting close. Bottas has more than a few more years left in Formula 1. Wehrlein is nearly ready for a top-teir F1 seat. Should he get the Mercedes Drive Bottas is not going to relinquish it without a fight. Wehrlein could be ready for that seat in a years time, leaving Merc in the unenviable situation of having 3 drivers for 2 seats. The young up and comer, the guy we just signed at great expense, or the 3 time (potentially 4 time) world champ? Clearly Hamilton isn’t going anywhere barring some enormous unforeseen event. That would mean Mercedes would once again have to choose between Bottas and Wehrlein, only this time made much more awkward given the decision they make this year.
At the end of the day as long as they continue to dominate, Mercedes will be a coveted seat. So filling that seat with a talented driver shouldn’t be that difficult assuming there aren’t any more shock retirements. So losing Wehrlein wouldn’t be the end of the world, however nobody dominates forever. Just ask Red Bull. As for the 2 arguing Austrians, I tend to fall on the side of Helmut Marko. Why have a young driver program if you aren’t going to promote from it? That said, Bottas is almost definitely the next Mercedes driver and Niki Lauda is probably a lot smarter than I am.