After a decade and a half in Formula 1, September 2016 saw Brazilian Felipe Massa declare his retirement from the sport at the end of the season. An announcement several weeks later from his former Team Principal, Claire Williams, stated that Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas and Canadian Rookie Lance Stroll were confirmed as the team’s Martini-sponsored drivers for the 2017 season.
The dust settled at Williams as attention turned back to the final race of the season – the duel in the desert at Abu Dhabi – where Williams were all-but-doomed to a 5th Place finish in the Constructors table. The duel at the front of the grid, however, was settled and it was Nico Rosberg who took championship glory, by clinging to a 2nd place finish behind team-mate and title rival Lewis Hamilton. Later that evening, Felipe Massa enjoyed a rooftop event held by the Williams team, attended by many drivers up and down the grid. He was presented with his personalised Brazil 2016 car, and given a formal send-off.
Not even a full week passed from this momentous weekend before the most unexpected bombshell of all. Five days after becoming F1’s man to beat, Rosberg announced his retirement from Formula 1. Suddenly, the most lucrative seat was vacant and drivers everywhere were sniffing at the possibility of a top drive. News reports even hinted at MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi’s chances at partnering Hamilton. Speculation, naturally, was rife. In reality, only four names were being given some credible chance by media; Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz, Force India’s Sergio Perez, Valtteri Bottas of Williams and Mercedes’ junior driver Pascal Wehrlein.
Very quickly it became a two-horse race between Bottas and Wehrlein and following confirmation from Sauber that Pascal would partner Ericsson in 2017, Mercedes announced Bottas as Rosberg’s replacement on a one-year contract. Williams then announced Massa would be returning to replace his former team-mate.
During initial speculation of a potential Massa return, questions were being asked, and rightly so. The feeder series are bursting with talent, perhaps it could be an ideal ‘stepping stone’ to Mercedes for Wehrlein? The answer came a matter of days ago, when Claire Williams announced that their options were very much narrowed and hampered by the demands of their principal sponsor, Martini, who declared that in order to avoid issues with their sponsorship, whomever partners the 18-year old Lance Stroll, must be over 25 years of age.
Realistically, the question could be asked whether Massa sealed the Williams drive by default. It seems another case of money taking precedent in Formula 1, as potential of losing such a huge sponsor proved to be impossible for Williams to contend with. In addition to this, it may not have been wise to partner Lance Stroll – a rookie at the tender age of 18 – with another up and coming young driver.