It may sound crazy, but twice in the past three weeks, Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff has dropped hints that the team is not exactly thrilled with its driver lineup—or at least the way the drivers relate to each other.
Next, when asked by Autosport's Ian Parkes about Rosberg's contract, which expires at the end of 2016, Wolff said, "...it's early days to discuss that. I want to see how the season pans out.
"There are areas we want to develop altogether as a team, and let's see how that goes."
Not exactly a vote of confidence for a driver who has won 11 races over the last two years while helping Mercedes claim two constructors' championships.
If Mercedes do decide to make a change at the end of the 2016 season, let's assume that they will keep Hamilton, who just won his second drivers' title for the team, has a new contract through 2018 and is in the midst of proving himself as not only one of the best drivers of his generation, but one of the best of all time. He's not going anywhere.
Despite Mercedes' frequent reminders that they do not have No. 1 and No. 2 drivers, Rosberg has become the Rubens Barrichello to Hamilton's Michael Schumacher (somewhat ironic, since Rosberg beat Schumacher in each of the three years they were paired together at Mercedes). If one of the current drivers is going to take the hit for the personal problems between Hamilton and Rosberg, it's going to be Rosberg.
Well-connected Formula One journalist Joe Saward had an interesting take on Wolff's comments, replying to a comment on his blog with, "I think that they are laying the groundwork for Max Verstappen to join…"
No one can predict the future of the F1 driver market—particularly a year away—but Mercedes already tried to sign Verstappen once, before Red Bull scooped him up with the promise of an immediate race seat. The Dutch teenager's impressive performances for Toro Rosso this year will have done nothing to dampen the appetite for his services at Mercedes headquarters in Brackley.
If Rosberg doesn't have his contract renewed beyond next year, his options don't look particularly appealing at the moment.
Ferrari is clearly the second-best team at the moment, but they already have a No. 1 driver in Sebastian Vettel, although there could be an opening at the Italian team if 2016 proves to be Kimi Raikkonen's last year in F1.
However, it is unlikely Rosberg would be at the top of the Scuderia's wish list, even if he did want to sign there. Younger drivers (Rosberg will be 31 by the end of next season) like Daniel Ricciardo, Valtteri Bottas and, yes, young Verstappen are probably more appealing.
Continuing down the constructors' standings, Williams also might have a seat (or two) available at the end of 2016. Rosberg did drive for the Grove-based team for the first four years of his F1 career, but would they have the budget for him now?
According to Business Book GP's numbers, published by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo Deportivo (h/t Crash.net), the salaries of both 2015 Williams drivers—Bottas and Felipe Massa—combined for less than half of Rosberg's 14.8 million paycheck. Maybe Rosberg would be willing to take a big pay cut.
Meanwhile, Red Bull would offer an attractive seat as soon as they get a decent engine (and the heavily revised regulations for 2017 should give them a chance to get their house in order), but they are firmly committed to developing and promoting their own drivers.
From there, we drop squarely into the midfield, with Renault/Lotus, Force India, Sauber and Toro Rosso (perhaps to be joined by Manor and their new Mercedes power units). Who knows what seats will become available among these teams over the next year, but it would certainly be a precipitous drop for Rosberg from a championship-winning car to any of these teams.
Finally, there are two enigmas: McLaren and Haas.
McLaren already have a backlog of drivers waiting for either Fernando Alonso or Jenson Button to step aside (or receive a gentle shove), so they are unlikely to look outside the team should a vacancy arise.
Likewise, Haas will continue to have access to Ferrari's driver pipeline as long as their technical partnership remains in place, and Romain Grosjean did not join the team for a one-year cameo (unless Ferrari comes calling).
Rosberg's best option is clearly to stay at Mercedes, rediscovering the positive working relationship he had with Hamilton prior to their championship fight last year. If that is not possible and Mercedes do give Rosberg his walking papers, well, let's just say it could be a busy offseason for his agent.
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