The 2017 F1 grid is taking shape with news that German youngster Pascal Wehrlein will move from Manor to Sauber. Wehrlein had also been linked with the open cockpit at Mercedes after Nico Rosberg's retirement.
The Sauber F1 Team on Monday announced that Pascal Wehrlein would join the outfit for the 2017 season, partnering with Swede Marcus Ericsson at a team that really struggled to compete in 2016.
"We are very pleased to confirm Pascal Wehrlein as our second race driver for the 2017 Formula One World Championship," team principal Monisha Kaltenborn said.
She alluded to the 22-year-old's past achievements, including becoming the youngest ever DTM (German Touring Car) champion in 2015 driving a Mercedes, and his 10th-placed finish last season in F1 for his previous team Manor, bagging the backmarkers a very rare championship point, their only one of the 2016 season.
"There is surely more to come from Pascal, and we want to give him the chance to further grow and learn at the pinnacle of motorsport. I am confident Marcus and Pascal will form a solid combination for 2017," Kaltenborn said.
Wehrlein, meanwhile, said he was "very delighted" at the chance to take up "a new challenge in a new team" in 2017.
"Our objective is to establish ourselves in the mid-field and to score points on a regular basis," Wehrlein said, articulating a target that Sauber utterly failed to meet in 2016, scoring just two points all season with for a ninth-place finish in Brazil. "Now I am looking forward to meeting everyone in the team and to tackling the preparations for the 2017 season. I want to say a big thank you to Sauber for trusting in me and giving me this great chance. And surely, a huge thanks also goes to Mercedes for the support."
Now only Bottas remaining for Mercedes?
When the surprise news of world champion Nico Rosberg's retirement broke, Wehrlein was viewed as a potential candidate to jump in at Mercedes. The Mercedes young driver program graduate won his DTM title in a Mercedes and then got his F1 debut driving for Manor, which uses Mercedes engines. He was clearly being groomed with a view to maybe taking the role one day, but Rosberg's retirement may have come a year or two too soon for team bosses Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda to gamble on the youngster.
A tweet from the Mercedes F1 team appeared to allude to just this connection, describing Wehrlein's move as the "first piece of the puzzle."
Although unconfirmed, it is now broadly understood that Valtteri Bottas is likely to leave his contract with Williams - another Mercedes-engined team - and partner Lewis Hamilton for 2017. Williams has already hinted that in this event, it would likely ask Felipe Massa to come out of retirement and drive for one more season alongside Canadian newcomer Lance Stroll. Insiders said that Massa's retirement was only partly the Brazilian's own choice, as evidenced by him hunting for other possible drives in the paddock once a contract renewal with Williams was off the table.
For Wehrlein, the Sauber is surely not as appealing a ride as the Mercedes would have been. Indeed, the Swiss-based outfit's ninth-placed finish at the chaotic Brazilian Grand Prix last year might explain Wehrlein's need to move teams at all. That result allowed Sauber to leapfrog Wehrlein's old team Manor in the 2016 constructors' championship - scoring two points to Wehrlein's solitary one secured in Austria. That meant a big boost in prize money for Sauber and major losses for Manor, which is now in administration and seeking financial rescue so it can make the 2017 grid.
Manor is yet to confirm any drivers for 2017, in the event it can go to the season-opening F1 race in Melbourne, Australia on March 26. All the other spots on the grid, barring the big one at Mercedes, are filled.