Cape Town - In what is perhaps the biggest unkept secret of the 2017 Formula 1 season so far, Valtteri Bottas has signed for Mercedes.
2016 F1 champion Nico Rosberg pulled the rug from underneath our collective feet when he announced that he was retiring from the sport a few days after winning his maiden title.
Not only was it a shock to fans, but it also placed the Mercedes team 'in the worst possible situation' of finding a replacement.
Sure there are lots of options within the current grid, but it proved a lot more complicated than simply signing another driver. Above all, the driver Mercedes ultimately chose would have to be partnered with the huge tour-de-force that is Lewis 'The Hammer' Hamilton.
And Bottas was the driver the team decided on, but only offered him a one-year contract.
But why sign for only one year?
By signing Bottas for only one year (with the option to extend), Mercedes is keeping its options open with regards to the 2018 driver market. Both Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel will be out of contract by the end of this year and Mercedes will be free to approach them. Bottas, it would seem, is the interim candidate, only keeping the seat warm for any of the two aforementioned drivers. Mercedes wants to be the best and with that comes signing the best possible driver(s). Alonso and Vettel, along with Hamilton, ARE the best drivers on the current grid.
Though he'll be 36-years-old should he sign for Mercedes next year, Alonso has lost none of his craft and racing skill. He is still one of the top dogs and can still deliver as long as he has a great car. He did, however, say that if the new rules and regulations coming in effect in 2017 do not spice up the racing, he will hang up his F1 boots and look for greener pastures. Even if an offer from Mercedes is on the table! His reasons for possibly quitting F1: the sport is not 'fun' anymore.
READ: Vettel could jump ship to Mercedes in 2018
Vettel is a German driver and the higher-ups at Mercedes want a German driver within their ranks. When the Silver Arrows returned to F1 in 2010, the team had Michael Schumacher and Rosberg as their drivers. Both Germans. When Schumacher retired (for the second time) in 2012, Hamilton joined the team as Rosberg's team mate. But now, given that Hulkenberg and Wehrlein are both unavailable, the team searched for a compromise - Bottas. And although he is Finnish, Bottas is fast and mature enough to carry the heavy burden of the Mercedes-name on his shoulders.
The options Mercedes had
Mercedes considered all options to replace Rosberg with. Team boss Toto Wolff was, and still is, quite keen on signing two-time F1 champion Alonso while others within the team considered fourt-time title winner Vettel.
Both Alonso and Vettel are contractually bound to McLaren-Honda and Ferrari for the 2017 season, respectively. It would have made a serious financial dent in Mercedes' budget if they had persued the decision to buy either one out of their contracts. Both drivers indicated that they will be respecting their contracts in 2017. So those doors are closed.
READ: One year deal for Bottas 'strange' - Salo
Another option was Nico Hulkenberg who is in the final year of his Force India contract. But before the season ended and ahead of Rosberg's shock announcement, 'The Hulk' signed a multi-year deal with Renault. Hulkenberg is one of the greatest talents in F1 today and any team would benefit from signing him. He joked that Rosberg could have told him about his plans. With that knowledge, perhaps he could've secured a seat with Mercedes...
So that leaves two drivers: Pascal Wehrlein and Bottas.
Wehrlein, also a German, hails from the Mercedes development ranks and has a lot of racing experience despite being 21-years-old. He joined Manor Racing in 2015 and has proved his worth in F1. But the youngster made silly mistakes in the pinnacle of motorsport and errors in his on-track judgement has counted against him at times. When Hamilton joined McLaren in 2007, to partner double-champion Alonso, the team nearly imploded as its drivers bickered throughout the season. Mercedes did not want a repeat of that between Hamilton and Wehrlein.
Manor Racing has since gone into administration and does not look to be racing in 2017, but Wehrlein has signed for Sauber in 2017, which puts him out of the running, too. Though he is backed by Mercedes, the Gemans allowed him to race for Ferrari-powered Sauber to gain more experience in the sport should he one day be promoted to the Mercedes team.
READ: F1 - Pascal Wehrlein to join Sauber in 2017
That leaves Bottas. The only real option Mercedes had from the beginning.
Bottas, while still driving for Williams, was managed by the very same Toto Wolff who is team boss for the Mercedes F1 team. And this relationship definitely had a role in Bottas' signing. But the overall-deal is more intricate than that. Williams is powered by Mercedes engines and costs per engine is in the region of $15-million! By releasing Bottas from his contract, Williams will receive a discount on their engine prices. And in a high-price sport like F1, saving money is everything! Also, ex-Mercedes technical head Paddy Lowe resigned at the end of the 2016 season and was placed on 'gardening leave'. But with Bottas joining Merc, Williams is free to approach Lowe and Lowe is free to accept the offer - without any penalties! Coincidentally, Williams was the first F1 team Lowe worked for.
Bottas post 2017
Depending on his performance in 2017, Bottas could continue driving for Mercedes next year - provided he performs. Should Mercedes choose to only have him for this solitary year, Bottas could return to Williams. Also, both Ferrari's current drivers, Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, are out of contract in 2018. Should one of these two drivers decide to call it a day at the team from Maranello, Bottas will be a sure-fit to replace either one.
READ: Bottas replaces Rosberg at Mercedes, Massa back at Williams
Bottas' future in F1 can either be ensured by him driving for Mercedes, or not. He does not have to beat Hamilton this year, but if he proves to the F1 world that Mercedes didn't make a mistake in signing, he will be a top priority on all teams' radar beyond this year.