London - World champion Nico Rosberg’s retirement announcement on Friday came as a complete surprise – even to the man who knows most of Formula One’s best-kept secrets, commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone.
“It was just as big a shock to me as you,” he told Reuters by telephone after Rosberg dropped the bombshell days after securing his first championship in last Sunday’s Abu Dhabi season-ender.
“I had dinner with [Mercedes team boss] Toto [Wolff] last night and he obviously couldn’t say anything to me [about it].”
While making light of the German driver’s decision – “he needs more time to spend his money, that’s all” – Ecclestone said he would like to see Spaniard Fernando Alonso replace Rosberg alongside Lewis Hamilton.
The double world champion is contracted to McLaren for the next season, although given that team’s poor performances in recent seasons, he could well be scanning his contract for escape clauses.
McLaren are going through change, with Ron Dennis – who twice signed Alonso to the team – ousted last month as chair and CEO while American Zak Brown coming in as executive director.
“It’s possible I suppose, let’s see. They’ve got new management now at McLaren. Maybe he’s fed up being there and they’re fed up having him,” Ecclestone said.
Alonso was previously Hamilton’s team-mate at McLaren in the Briton’s stellar 2007 debut season, when they both finished a point behind Ferrari’s champion Kimi Räikkönen.
The 86-year-old supremo suggested Red Bull’s 19-year-old Dutch sensation Max Verstappen would be “the obvious answer” to the question of who should replace Rosberg, but that was not going to happen.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, a four-time world champion, was also unlikely to be lured away.
“I think not. I don’t think Seb would want to be with Lewis,” said Ecclestone.
British bookmakers began immediately recalculating their odds for next season, with Mercedes reserve driver Pascal Wehrlein the favourite to join Hamilton at the dominant champions.
William Hill had Wehrlein, who scored a point for lowly Manor this year, at 3/1 with Alonso and Vettel both joint second favourites at 5/1.
Britain’s Jenson Button, meanwhile, was 10/1 to call off his retirement.
“Lewis is now the hot favourite [for the title] but, with his competitive nature, I am sure he will be gutted not to be going head-to-head next year,” William Hill spokesperson Rupert Adams said.
Meanwhile, Hamilton said he was “sad but not surprised” at Rosberg’s sudden decision to quit Formula One, five days after finally claiming his maiden world title.
Hamilton and Rosberg’s careers have developed in tandem, from the go-kart circuits of their teenage years to F1 and the dominant Mercedes team.
And while Rosberg’s revelation stunned F1 fans, his friend and fierce rival was unfazed by the news.
“I’m probably one of the only people that it was not a surprise to, but that’s because I’ve known him for a long time,” Hamilton told autosport.com in Vienna at F1’s annual awards ceremony.
“This is the first time he’s won in 18 years, hence it was not a surprise that he decided to stop.
“But he’s also got a family to focus on, having children, and Formula One takes so much of your time.”
Three-time world champion Hamilton added: “We started out when we were 13 and we’d always talked about being champions.
“When I joined this team [Mercedes], Nico was there, which was again something we talked about when we were kids.
“It’s going to be very, very strange, and it will be sad not to have him in the team next year. The sport will miss him, and I wish him all the best.”
Unlike Hamilton, Rosberg’s exit caught Jean Todt, the president of motorsport’s ruling body the FIA, unawares.
“I speak with a lot of emotion, because I knew him as a small boy.
“He was five at the time I was head of Peugeot Motorsport, and his father (former world champion Keke) was one of the drivers of the 905 Peugeot, so I had friendly links with his father, with his mother and the little boy who was there.
“He has had an amazing career since then.” – Reuters, Sport24