Nico Rosberg has defended himself against Niki Lauda's claim that his retirement left Mercedes "standing in the rain." As his F1 world title tour reached Cologne, Rosberg also found praise for his possible replacement.
Niki Lauda's claims that Rosberg's sudden retirement left the Mercedes team in the lurch, hunting for a driver for 2017 at relatively short notice with much of the grid locked in at other teams, have confused the 31-year-old.
Rosberg told German weekly newspaper "Die Zeit", in an interview to be published in full on Thursday, that he did not understand "what horse Niki was riding" when making those comments. "He must have misunderstood something," Rosberg said.
Lauda had voiced confusion at Rosberg's claim that he only planned to retire if he won the world championship, and suggested that the German should have indicated his plans to his team earlier.
Rosberg, however, said that he had done all he could to give Mercedes as much notice as possible.
"If it had only been up to me, I would have rather waited until Christmas to announce my retirement, but I could not have done that to the team," he said. Mercedes will want to appoint a driver relatively swiftly, well in advance of pre-season testing in February. One employee jokingly added an entry "driver" by hand on the internal jobs advertisements on the team noticeboard at the Brackley factory, setting a "deadline" for the appointment as December 31.
Comparing trophies with Poldi
Rosberg's post-title world tour took him to Cologne on Wednesday, and an appointment with German World Cup winner Lukas Podolski. As a sponsor of the German national team, Mercedes has organized repeated appointments for Rosberg with Joachim Löw's side down the years.
Side-by-side with Prince Poldi, Rosberg repeated that his decision to retire had been contingent on him beating teammate Lewis Hamilton to the 2016 title.
"The thoughts of retirement only came once the title was within reach. Only after I'd achieved my childhood dream and had done all that I had aspired to did things become clear to me. The thought was 100-percent connected to the title itself," Rosberg said in Cologne.
Podolski, meanwhile, addressed the Mercedes issue with his typical mixture of humor and hubris: "Niki, if you're looking for a driver, I'm ready!"
Rosberg ruled out a comeback of his own, saying that "new chapters" in his life would now follow.
Wehrlein a 'huge hope for Germany,' Schumi helped shape Nico
Rosberg did not directly address the issue of who might replace him at Mercedes, but offered glowing praise of the bookmaker's current favorite, Pascal Wehrlein.
"Pascal is a huge hope for Germany for the future. Of course he has to be on the shortlist," Rosberg said of the 23-year-old, who impressed this year in limited machinery with the Mercedes-powered Manor team. Prior to that, Wehrlein became the youngest German Touring Car (DTM) champion of all time at the wheel of a works Mercedes in 2015.
Wehrlein is currently seen as the front-runner to replace Rosberg, although bookmakers consider Williams' Valtteri Bottas - a solid Finn with a little more F1 experience than Wehrlein - and veteran double world champion Fernando Alonso to be other potential contenders.
The outgoing champ also praised local hero Michael Schumacher, who grew up just west of Cologne in Kerpen, during his visit - saying that his three seasons alongside the legend were a defining influence on his own F1 career.
"When you looked at Schumacher at work, you noticed how he became a seven-time champion. He did everything very professionally, was always totally motivated and extremely disciplined," Rosberg said, adding that it was "inspiring" to watch Schumacher go about his business. "He was also very important for my personal career - because if I had not beaten him back then, then I surely would not have been able to stay at Mercedes very much longer."
For the short-term, Rosberg described himself as "a husband and father," saying the three of them were heading on holiday "without a return ticket."