Nico Rosberg's decision to walk away from Formula One just days after winning the World Title was a shock, but it's also arguably the most badass way a sportsman has ever exited his sport.
What better way to walk away than as a champion? Title in hand, Rosberg has walked away into the proverbial sunset to settle down into family life, safe in the knowledge that his legacy is set in stone and that he'll forever be held in the highest regard. Like a boxer exiting the ring undefeated. Not many athletes have the guts to walk away whilst at the top. Bjorn Borg did it, at the age of 27, Sir Alex Ferguson, though not strictly an athlete, walked away from Manchester United as a Premier League champion. It can be too easy to carry on and try and win just one more, only for your legacy to be shredded with every failed season.
Yes, it wasn't the greatest exit strategy ever devised; Rosberg only told Mercedes of his plans the week after the season ended, leaving them with scant time to find a suitable replacement. But when could he have informed his team of his plans? If he told them before the title-deciding race in Abu Dhabi, his mechanics and strategy might have been heavily influenced by his decision to leave. Regardless, the deed has been done and now Mercedes must find a replacement, but who exactly?
As things currently stand, Alonso is the man most likely to take the vacant seat at Mercedes. He has the speed, experience and mentality to take the pressure of a top seat. He's been there and done that, twice to be precise, with Renaut and would relish one last tilt at the title. He's been very unlucky to have raced for great teams but at the wrong time; Ferrari and McLaren have both been in the doldrums during his stints at the teams.
He has history with Lewis Hamilton, dating back to his time at McLaren, but surely enough time has passed the bury the hatchet? Toto Wolff has assured us that Rosberg's replacement won't be a number 2 or a water carrier for the team; what better choice, then, for a two-time world champion with a point to prove?
Perhaps an anti-climatic choice, but it's the one that makes the most sense. Bottas shares management links with Mercedes chief Toto Wolff, so there's a natural connection already. Added to that, Williams, Bottas' current team, have raced with Mercedes engines for the past three season, so the Finn won't need as much time as others to get to grips with the sheer speed of the Silver Arrows. And lastly, Bottas is a damn good driver. He'd head to Mercedes firmly as Lewis Hamilton's understudy perhaps, but that's not to say Bottas won't push the Brit and win a handful of races next season. It wouldn't be as exciting as Alonso, but it's the move that makes the most sense.
Surely Vettel is worth a phone call? Openly frustrated this season with Ferrari, to add to an underwhelming opening season with the Scuderia, surely he'll think twice about turning down a side that will almost certainly let him add to his four world titles? Hamilton would have a seriously difficult time asserting himself against Vettel; the German is arguably the only driver on the current grid who is better than the Brit. Added to that, Vettel is a German, just like Mercedes. A German superstar in a German monster of a car is surely a tantalising marketing opportunity that cannot go unexplored?
Jenson Button & Felipe Massa
No, these two don't come as a pair and i'm not suggesting that both share the vacant seat, but don't rule out either coming out of retirement for a go in the Silver Arrow. Jenson Button left the sport in Abu Dhabi with a sense that he would jump at the chance to continue. His retirement may be more down to the state of his McLaren car rather than a dwindling ability and old age. Likewise with Felipe Massa, though the prospect of the Brazilian returning is more unrealistic. Both offer the wisdom and ability that Mercedes would crave given the regulation change this coming season. Button is a world champion, so it's not as if Mercedes would be putting a journeyman into the vacant seat. Plus he gets on well with ex-team mate Hamilton, so team harmony would likely not be hampered by such a pairing.
Mercedes could surprise us all and turn to youth take up Rosberg's mantle in the guise of Pascal Wehrlein. The young German is part of Mercedes' youth driver programme and got his first taste of F1 with Manor Racing this year. He impressed in a carthorse of a car and has a very bright future in the sport. It's likely he'll end up at his parent team one day, but is it a season or two too early for him? He'd be placed under immediate pressure to get the most out of the car in order to win the Constructors' Title, and he'd have to go toe-to-toe with Hamilton, one of the greatest drivers of the modern era. It's an expectation that could destroy a young driver's career. Get it wrong or fold under pressure and he'll be cast aside into the driver scrapheap, to be replaced by the next bright young thing in 2018. And that could be it for Wehrlein in F1. Yes, that's a sorry and worst-case scenario, but one that could unfold pretty quickly if he doesn't get off the starting line for Mercedes. A more likely scenario is that Wehrlein gets tied into a Mercedes deal for Bottas; the Finn would replace Robserg, and Wehrlein would be handed a Williams drive for next year as part of a 2017 engine deal. It's a solution that would keep all parties happy.