Formula One has found itself in a rather odd predicament ahead of the upcoming Australian Grand Prix.
For the first time since 1994, the reigning world champion won’t be on the starting grid for the opening round of the following season.
Following Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement announcement, many people asked if it was a bad thing that the sport would lose its current driver champion. On the face of it you would say yes. However, reality shows a completely different prospect.
As winter testing began a few weeks ago, the sport as awash with a buzz thanks to the new look cars and several driver changes over the winter. As the teams took to the track for the first time in 2017 there was barely a single mention of Rosberg on social media.
Instead, fans were blazing away at their keyboards to talk about the cars and Mercedes strange lack of pace compared to rival Ferrari; Rosberg’s absence in the Silver Arrow was smothered by replacement Valtteri Bottas’ debut.
The Finn didn’t set the world ablaze with his times, but his attitude off track left a big impression on the team. Word was he shook hands with all the mechanics at the end of both tests, something Lewis Hamilton didn’t find particularly pleasing.
For Hamilton, the departure of Rosberg was the end of a four-year rivalry. The pair used to be great friends and to say that friendship suffered under the load of their rivalry is an understatement.
Hamilton often finds himself paranoid that his team are against him and Bottas showing a similar attitude to his mechanics as Rosberg, seems to have rattled Hamilton slightly.
Of course, Rosberg wasn’t the only champion to depart the sport last year. Jenson Button announced his retirement from racing at the Italian Grand Prix. At the time Ron Dennis was pleased to announce Button would remain with the team in their ‘innovative three driver’ plan.
One could argue Button’s absence in testing was even more anonymous than Rosberg’s. Button failed to show up in Barcelona at all, Rosberg at least popped his head in the door during test one.
Despite neither Rosberg or Button having a race seat this year, the grid will still have four world champions on it in Melbourne. Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso remain the sport’s biggest names. They face great challenges from the likes of Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen, Carlos Sainz, Sergio Perez, Valtteri Bottas and Stoffel Vandoorne.
The 2017 grid will have seven previous career race winners, twelve previous podium finishers and seven different pole sitters. It’s inevitable that the likes of Bottas and Verstappen will add their names to at least a couple of those lists.
The depth of talent on the grid remains as strong as it did in 2016. While we miss Rosberg and Button, we don’t miss them as much as we wanted to when they announced their departures.
Instead, the future looks bright. A new era is quickly emerging and already beginning to write itself a place in the history books; an eighteen-year-old Verstappen stole F1’s youngest race winner crown in Spain last year.
In 2018 we could face the prospect of just one world champion being on the grid. This, of course, relies on Hamilton winning the 2017 championship and retiring along with Alonso and Raikkonen. However, it could happen.
Will Formula One miss them? Of course it will. But as soon as the lights go out at the season opener, they would quickly be forgotten about as big characters like Ricciardo and Verstappen take centre stage.
It is very important to remember, no driver is bigger than the formula in which they compete.