In my Abu Dhabi Grand Prix ratings report, I said that the UK viewing public did not find the duel between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in 2016 as exciting as their first battle in 2014. This comes from purely anecdotal observations, the impression that I got was that the Hamilton and Rosberg rivalry did not excite or bring in new fans to the sport. This, alongside general apathy in recent years thanks to rule tinkering for example, has resulted in declining interest.
I noted how Formula 1 needed someone new and different to challenge the authority in 2017. Just five days after Abu Dhabi, the bombshell was confirmed: the reigning champion Nico Rosberg would be retiring from Formula 1 with immediate effect. Immediately, 2017 just became much more interesting. Potentially. Liberty Media and Bernie Ecclestone will be keeping a close eye on what happens next, and perhaps even trying to influence who joins Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes.
I rarely venture into speculation within the drivers’ market, but the potential impact on viewing figures both here in the UK and overseas will be significant depending on what direction Mercedes heads into. I’m going to assume that the pecking order will remain roughly the same with the Silver Arrows in front, however the rule changes could lead to a shake-up. Here, we examine the possibilities and which combination will serve up the most enticing season:
Scenario 1 – Sebastian Vettel partners Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes
Despite Sebastian Vettel’s dominance at the head of Formula 1 between 2010 and 2013, viewing figures held up remarkably well in the UK. 2010 and 2011 saw the highest Formula 1 ratings in the UK for a generation, although it is unknown whether that was down to him or instead due to the other stories of that time. His controversial win in the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix peaked with six million viewers, whilst two years later his surprise win against Hamilton peaked with a similar audience.
You cannot outright claim that X or Y driver ‘draws’ more viewers without sufficient evidence, as there are a wide variety of factors involved: time of day, weather, other sporting events and so on, but races where Vettel is leading tend to draw a larger audience than where he is struggling. Vettel’s dominance was done in such a way that it became appealing to audiences watching: the style in which he was able to throw his car into places others were unwilling to tread. A Vettel and Hamilton partnership would help viewing figures in both Germany and the UK. It would also remove Vettel from Ferrari, where he has been the underdog against Mercedes in recent times.
This scenario is unlikely (Vettel himself denied it shortly after this piece was written), but if you wanted two champions in one team, Vettel has to be at the top of Mercedes’ Christmas list. I think a Vettel move would also create another battle for the Ferrari number one seat, which could result in a further domino effect.
Scenario 2 – Mercedes swoop for one Red Bull driver, Kvyat takes the spare Bull seat
The idea of Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton at this stage of Verstappen’s career is a mouth-watering prospect, but one that the British driver would probably veto. A reverse of 2007 is not a situation Hamilton would want to be in. From the casual punter perspective, interest would surge in the Netherlands as a result of this move. Verstappen would find himself in potentially a title-winning position in only his third season. However, interest is likely to increase anyway if Verstappen continues to improve.
You could have a blockbuster 2017 with Verstappen and Hamilton at Mercedes, but would the two drivers coexist? And if so, for how long? I couldn’t see this partnership lasting beyond a season. If Hamilton walked, would he walk from Formula 1 as a whole? For Formula 1, this scenario is far more dangerous than the others mentioned. If Verstappen joined Mercedes, it could trigger a series of moves over the next season or two assuming Hamilton did not want to work with Verstappen.
Interest would increase, but with more volatility the bubble could burst far, far quicker if this avenue was explored. I wouldn’t like to predict this one…
Scenario 3 – Fernando Alonso partners Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, Button comes out of retirement
A rekindling of their 2007 rivalry, and more in line with the first scenario. Alonso in the Mercedes would help reignite interest in Formula 1 in Spain, which has dwindled slightly since his title-winning years in 2005 and 2006. Now that Alonso is in the latter stages of his career, this opportunity could be his last chance of winning a championship. You would imagine that the respect between Alonso and Hamilton is greater now than what it was back in 2007.
If McLaren let Alonso go, in theory it could lead to the return of Jenson Button to partner Stoffel Vandoorne. Abu Dhabi did have some kind of ‘finality’ to it though and I don’t see Button wanting to return to McLaren if a vacancy did appear. An alternative would be for Button to jump to Mercedes for a final swan song whilst they prepare the man mentioned below…
Scenario 4 – Pascal Wehrlein partners Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes
This is a difficult situation. As a fan, I want to see new talent up at the sharp end in Formula 1. But, I fear that another season of Mercedes domination would result in a Hamilton walkover in this scenario. Yes, Wehrlein is ready for Formula 1, of course he is. Some of his standout qualifying performances with Manor this year support that theory.
But, if Mercedes were a clear front-runner, and if Wehrlein was a clear number two driver, then the 2017 season will lack a championship battle. That won’t be good for worldwide viewing figures. You don’t want an artificial fight by any stretch of the imagination. I would prefer to see the likes of Valtteri Bottas or Nico Hulkenberg receive a chance at Mercedes, with Wehrlein promoted elsewhere.
I say all the above without having seen a 2017 car turned in anger yet. Mercedes could be a flop with the new regulations (highly unlikely, I know). For me, the idea of having Lewis Hamilton partner either Verstappen, Alonso, Vettel or Ricciardo with both drivers running the same equipment is a prospect that I would love to see, whether it happens for one season or five. Some of those combinations will bring new fans to Formula 1. The next few weeks could dictate the prospects for the next few seasons. Will Mercedes shake the Formula 1 cart, or will they go with the ‘safer’ option in Wehrlein? We’re about to find out…