Mercedes have made an approach for Williams driver Valtteri Bottas to replace Nico Rosberg, according to Sky sources.
Bottas was instantly installed as joint favourite alongside Pascal Wehrlein to be Lewis Hamilton’s 2017 team-mate in the wake of Rosberg’s shock decision to quit the sport, but was cut to the outright favourite on Sunday.
Williams are thought to have rebuffed Mercedes’ initial approach with a spokesperson telling Sky Sports their line-up for 2017 remains unchanged.
The team announced in October that rookie teenager Lance Stroll would replace the retiring Felipe Massa alongside Bottas next season.
But Mercedes have considerable potential leverage over Williams. The F1 world champions are Williams’ engine suppliers while Mercedes boss Toto Wolff is part of Bottas’ management group.
However, the situation is complicated by reports Paddy Lowe, Mercedes’ technical chief, is set to join Williams, possibly in a ‘team boss’ role. Former Ferrari technical director James Allison, who left the Scuderia in April, is tipped to replace Lowe if he departs.
Bottas the obvious target?
Fast and blessed with the sort of unflappable temperament that is likely to cause minimum disruption to Mercedes’ well-oiled winning machine, Bottas was the obvious target for Mercedes to pursue once McLaren ruled out Fernando Alonso’s departure and Sebastian Vettel stressed his contractual commitment to the Scuderia.
Although Wehrlein, Mercedes official reserve driver for the past three seasons, is highly rated by Wolff, the team’s failure to appoint the 22-year-old, who has yet to be signed by any team for 2017, last week tacitly revealed their doubts as to his readiness.
Wolff ready for ‘brave’ choice
Meanwhile, Lowe was not present when Hamilton and Wolff met over the weekend at the Mercedes’ boss house.
“We just had an amazing meeting,” Hamilton said. “I just wanted to send on a message to let you know that we are going to be the strongest partnership next year and we look forward to fighting for this championship again.”
Mercedes solution and Williams’ problem
The question from the outset of Mercedes’ search for Rosberg’s successor is what sort of offer they could make to successfully persuade Williams to part with Bottas.
It’s a problem which Wolff himself acknowledged when he spoke to Sky Sports last week about Bottas, a nine-time podium finisher.
“Besides the personal relationship, where he’s a very likeable and intelligent driver, he’s also somebody who is very, very fast,” said Wolff. “But he’s with Williams now, the lead driver, and is very important for the combination with Lance Stroll. Claire [Williams] and her team very much rely on him.”
Although Mercedes could offer Williams vastly reduced terms on their engine deal, that would not solve the problem of Williams 2017 driver line-up remaining viable if Bottas is prised away. While Wehrlein could fill any vacancy, the youngster’s appointment alongside Stroll would leave Williams with one of the most inexperienced pairings on the grid.
Sky F1 analyst Mark Hughes tweeted last week: ‘If Mercedes takes Bottas but Williams feels Wehrlein/Stroll is too inexperienced. What about Paul di Resta?’
Another option for Williams to consider might be Felipe Nasr. Like Wehrlein, Nasr has not yet been contracted for 2017 and was Williams’ reserve driver in 2014 prior to joining Sauber. His appointment would guarantee the presence of a Brazilian driver on the grid – a prospect which Bernie Ecclestone, the sport’s supremo, will no doubt be keen to support.
The complication for Nasr is that his Brazilian backer Banco do Brasil decided to stop their F1 sponsorship of his drive at Sauber, although there have been suggestions a move up the grid to Williams could revive the company’s interest.