The troubled star of Formula 1: What next for Pascal Wehrlein?

Photo: Octane Photographic Ltd.

If a week is a long time in sport, a year is practically a decade. Cast your mind back to 2 December 2016, and Nico Rosberg has announced via social media – and to an audience of drop-jawed journalists in Paris – that he will not be attempting to retain his first and most likely sole Formula 1 World Championship.

Rosberg not only left the sport without its current World Champion on the grid for the first time since Alain Prost took a rain-check on 1994, but vacated the joint best seat in the house at the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 Team.

The winter months were warmed with instantaneous speculation over who’ll fit the gap in the jigsaw puzzle; names such as Max Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo, Valtteri Bottas, Nico Hülkenberg and even Sebastian Vettel were thrown into the hat, along with a young German-Mauritian star who’d captured the hearts of F1’s fanbase in his debut year with the plucky, but ultimately doomed Manor Racing squad.

A Mercedes junior, Pascal Wehrlein took the unconventional route into Formula 1. A solid if unspectacular karting career saw him make the step up into car racing, with the ADAC Formel Masters series. After winning at the second time of asking in 2011, Formula 3 came calling. Second place in the Euro Series and fourth in the talent-laden European Championship with Mücke Motorsport alerted the Silver Arrows as they looked to bolster their thin young driver ranks.

His single seater career took a back seat for 2013, as Mercedes handed him his first big break, placing him in the heavily competitive DTM series for 2013. For an 18-year-old, it was sink or swim.

His debut campaign yielded just three points in difficult machinery, but after a promising 2014 which saw him take a maiden win at the Lausitzring – the youngest winner in DTM history at the age of 19 years, 10 months and 28 days – Wehrlein came of age in 2015, fifteen points scoring finishes and two wins earning him Germany’s premier tin-top title ahead of veterans Jamie Green and Mattias Ekström.

Credit: DTM

This led to a seat with Manor, where he performed admirably, earning the now defunct Banbury outfit’s only point of the season in Austria.

With seats at Sahara Force India F1 Team and now Mercedes available – the future looked good for the 22-year-old. But, his downfall comes through his own making. Attitude and relationship problems with mechanics cost him a chance at Force India to fellow Mercedes junior and team-mate Esteban Ocon, who has gone from strength-to-strength in 2017. Bottas was chosen as Rosberg’s successor and went on to make a solid start to life at the top, taking three victories.

The Sauber F1 Team proved to be a way back in for Wehrlein, but a crash at the informal Race of Champions event almost took it all away – fortuitously his back injuries sidelined him for just two races at the start of the year. Once again, he showed his prowess in mediocre machinery, fighting his way to eighth at the Spanish Grand Prix and tenth at the chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix – once again, he has proved to be team’s only source of points in the season.

But, with Alfa Romeo making their way in as a main sponsor – giving FIA Formula 2 champion and Scuderia Ferrari prospect Charles Leclerc a seat – and Swedish backing in the shape of Longbow Finance keeping the maligned Marcus Ericsson’s future safe; just a shade over a year on from being tipped for a seat at Mercedes, Wehrlein has found himself out in the cold for 2018.

He himself has come to the realisation that a chance of returning to Formula 1 next year looks bleak. When quizzed about the vacancy at Williams Martini Racing, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said the German’s chances are “tiny” compared to main contenders Robert Kubica and Sergey Sirotkin – despite offering Williams a discount on power unit components as well as Wehrlein’s vast talent.

“Pascal is in a difficult position because there is not really an open spot for next year if Williams’s door closes,” Wolff mused in an interview to Autosport.

“He deserves to be in Formula 1, he is a very good driver. On track his performance was exceptional, and for many other reasons that go much beyond the driving the doors haven’t opened like we would have hoped.”

Credit: Daimler AG

“But I think he has the potential of being a successful Formula 1 driver.”

One is inclined to believe that those extraneous reasons are to do with his attitude. He was marked as the bad boy of the DTM series – BMW Motorsport boss Jens Marquardt said Wehrlein had to “calm down a bit” after a contentious move on Martin Tomczyk at Hockenheim in 2015.

Furthermore, on a couple of occasions at Manor, Wehrlein disregarded his engineer’s calls to switch off and save the engine – something crucial for a team struggling with finances. This was most notable in Free Practice for the Italian Grand Prix – he only obeyed at the seventh time of asking. Weeks later, after spinning in Practice at the Circuit of the Americas, it took numerous pleas for him to switch off the engine.

Doors are closing, fast.

Despite all of this, Wehrlein is still keen to hang onto a future in F1 for as long as possible.

“I have no deadline. The last two years, it was always quite late. I just hope we can find something and sign a contract for next year. I would be happy,” Wehrlein told Crash.
“I’m not looking outside [F1] yet.”

Looking at a more cynical and unsavoury route, should one of Sirotkin or Kubica fumble at Williams during next season, Wehrlein may prove to be their next port of call.

Yet, if he is forced away throughout 2018, Mercedes may look to return him to the DTM series for their final season. With no Mercedes influence in the World Endurance Championship, a seat with one of the new privateer LMP1 teams looks a long shot.

With their technical partnership with the Venturi Formula E Team, Wehrlein may find himself in training to become the German marque’s poster boy for their debut season in Formula E as a works team in 2019-2020.

However, one feels that Wehrlein would prefer to be in Formula 1 proper by then, perhaps knocking on the door of the reigning World Champions again. And, most likely, he’ll now have chances to prove himself to the bosses, the engineers and the world through Free Practice sessions.

And with age and experience with the team, he may feel that his time will have come by then. He earlier in 2017 admitted to that a move to Mercedes for last season would’ve been welcomed, but not necessarily practical for both parties.

“At the moment I am not on my limit where I could be, because of the experience and that is quite clear.

“If the chance is there, you have to take it. But with one year of experience you are not at your limit and you will do some mistakes.

“You will sometimes go in the wrong direction with the set-up because you are lacking the experience.”

With experience the one thing he craves and is in a desperate need for, where will it come from?

A year’s a long time to be away.