It may be nearly a month since the F1 circus reached it’s thrilling conclusion, but it feels as though the 2016 show continues to rumble on, with a winter of near unprecedented intrigue. Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement has had seismic consequences, seeing the driver market blown wide open once again as Mercedes scramble to find a replacement.
In another plot twist, Felipe Massa has reportedly signed a contract to race for Williams next season, despite his emotional – some might say perfect – retirement from the sport just last month. This signing would, of course, free up Valtteri Bottas to fill the champion’s shoes alongside Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes.
In the aftermath of this extraordinary leak, opinion has been divided as to whether Williams have made the right call to bring Massa out of retirement. In my view, this was the team’s only option in the event of Bottas heading to Brackley.
The Grove squad have already signed teenage Euro F3 Champion Lance Stroll for next season. The Canadian is a huge talent but will undoubtedly take some time to find his feet in the sport. That includes the limitations that Stroll will face in gathering data for the team during pre-season testing.
While Williams will be looking to assess the work completed over the winter months, Stroll’s primary target will be to prepare himself for Melbourne before preparing the car. As such, having an experienced pair of hands on the other side of the garage is essential.
Beyond winter testing, Stroll’s development as a driver would also be hindered by not having a teammate in which he can feed off of.
Sure, placing a young talent in the car would be more exciting than delaying Massa’s retirement party, but it would leave Williams in a mess. They would have no reference by which to assess the strengths and weaknesses of either driver, lacking a known quantity and a yardstick by which to evaluate Stroll’s progress, as well as what would surely be below par feedback for at least the first few weeks of running.
Let’s not forget, Williams are heading into 2017 under pressure. The team failed to replicate their 2015 form last campaign, let alone hitting the heights enjoyed in a breakthrough 2014. They are slowly but surely slipping back into midfield obscurity.
This is a team already taking one gamble in the form of Stroll. Putting another youngster in the car for 2017 would be like going all-in on black. Stroll would lose out, depriving the fans of a chance to see just how good he is, and Williams could easily be left high and dry on car development.
No doubt about it, Massa is the only suitable replacement for Bottas. Williams had no other options.