When you think of Mercedes' involvement in Formula 1, your mind obviously goes first to their works team, currently on pace to win their fourth consecutive Constructors Championship. Yet, their influence extends beyond just the Silver Arrows.
In fact, a driver decision made by these giants, who supply power units to two other teams, has a massive rippling effect throughout the grid. This primarily comes down to their two extremely promising junior drivers, Esteban Ocon and Pascal Werhlein.
In a sense, the future career of these bright stars don't lie solely with their own performance, but with the availability of a seat with Mercedes. Will Mercedes have a free seat for either one of them at the end of 2017?
Hamilton's future is surrounded by rumours
Lewis Hamilton's current future with Mercedes has been a much-speculated-on topic in 2017. Although his contract extends into 2018, the triple world champion has dropped hints (often followed by hasty denials) in the last few months that this season would be his last with Mercedes, or even his last in the F1 entirely.
The first real mention Hamilton made of potentially walking away came during this year's Canadian Grand Prix weekend, where Liberty Media's revelation that they were considering a 25-race season rocked the paddock. Hamilton, alongside veteran Fernando Alonso, announced he wouldn't be prepared to race in a season that long, saying he'd only be "happy to continue" if the season stayed at 20 races.
More serious evidence was produced in March when Britain's Sunday Express reported: "Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne is understood to be willing to upset the apple cart by making a move across the grid for three-time world champion Hamilton." The report suggested Hamilton could replace Sebastian Vettel, who would switch to Mercedes, so a German could drive German machinery.
However, Toto Wolff shut down any notion of a Hamilton/Ferrari switch at the British Grand Prix, where the rumour resurfaced, claiming that "what [Hamilton] said was that he’s a Ferrari fan like we all are and it’s a team every driver dreams to drive in."
However, the strongest evidence of Hamilton's potential retirement came about when he stated in an interview with the FIA's official magazine, Auto, "I can decide to stop at the end of this year."
The shocking fan response to the statement prompted Hamilton to walk back those comments subsequently claiming "I could easily do another three-year contract if I wanted to and I reckon I could go on for another one after that."
Is it all just rumours?
Hamilton's comments may be somewhat contradictory, but his comments on the intensity of this season paint a telling picture.
Hamilton's passion for a season-long fight was confirmed at this year's Australian Grand Prix, when Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel seemingly stole a victory from the shadows. After that race, Hamilton admitted, "I want to win the championship more than ever and while you'd think the hunger could not be more intense than last year, it has doubled." That's a passion that wasn't wavered throughout 2017, with Hamilton telling the media during the British Grand Prix weekend in July, "[This season] is the most intense battle that I've ever experienced."
With Hamilton's insistence on the intensity of the 2017 season, it seems unlikely he'll throw away the strongest chance he's ever had to further cement himself as one of the sports greatest drivers. His retirement from the sport or exit from Mercedes would be surprising.
What about Valtteri Bottas?
So, if Hamilton is still steering the Mercedes ship, who's going to fill the role of his first mate? As of now, Valtteri Bottas is signed to Mercedes on a one-year contract, but the Finn has put in some stunning performances during 2017, including two wins in Russia and Austria.
Purely because of performances like this, it would be strange to see Mercedes drop Bottas from their line up. It looks as though that won't be the case, however, as Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has made no secret of his admiration for Bottas and his spectacular results. Ahead of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Wolff told media, "You would never think [Bottas] joined the team very last minute over the winter and, after, seven Grands Prix, he has exceeded even our expectations."
This praise makes it hard to believe Mercedes would be on the look out for other drivers. With Christian Horner's confirmation that Max Verstappen will stay at Red Bull for the 2018 season, it's hard to see who else Mercedes would want at their top team.
The futures of Ocon and Wehrlein
But, if Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas both look likely to stay in the works teams, where will Mercedes development drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon end up?
Currently, Esteban Ocon is situated at Sahara Force India, a Mercedes power unit customer, and has impressed by finishing in the points in all but one race for the 2017 season.
Despite a few tussles over team orders in Canada and Azerbaijan, Ocon has heard only praise for his performances, something Toto Wolff made very clear during the Canadian Grand Prix weekend. After the young Frenchman had spent the race distance running with the grid leaders, Wolff commented "he’s developing just in the right way, he’s going to be a superstar of the future."
Similar such praise has been awarded to Pascal Wehrlein who's spent his season at the struggling Sauber outfit. Despite the overall lack of pace in the Sauber chassis, Wehrlein still managed to produce a stunning P8 finish in this year's Spanish Grand Prix, just three rounds after his return from a neck injury.
But it wasn't the result that caught Wolff's eye, but rather Wehrlein's maturity in the neck injury itself. The German driver was forced to miss the first two rounds of the 2017 Formula 1 season because of it. Although he was cleared by doctors to race, Wehrlein made the decision to miss the season start himself, telling the team he didn't feel he could perform to the best of his ability. "I’m impressed with the maturity he has shown to inform Sauber that he wouldn’t be able to perform at the level required," said Wolff.
So where do their futures lie?
Well, Esteban Ocon looks more than set to stay at Force India. He's fitted into the team immediately, and their nine double points finishes in the eleven rounds so far is absolute proof of this. Like Hamilton and Bottas, there's no better option for Force India and equally so, why would Ocon leave the team that's allowed him to show off his true ability?
But for Pascal Wehrlein, his 2018 season is not as straight-forward. Whilst the Sauber-Honda power unit deal was on, the future of Wehrlein looked good enough. But with Sauber's U-turn, announcing that they'll continue to be supplied by Ferrari in 2018, there could be external pressure to push the German out.
There are rumours swirling that Sauber is poised to be taken over by Ferrari, with the Scuderia transforming the team into a proper 'B' team because of the influx of talented drivers. If this were to happen, then Ferrari would not run a Mercedes development driver in a place that could be filled by a Ferrari Driver Academy member.
But once again, all of this decision-making is out of Wehrlein's hands, and he's simply caught in the middle powerless. If the Ferrari takeover did happen, it's hard to imagine where Wehrlein would go. He's proven he's got the talent, but he'd be limited with his choices as the team he does join would have to be more-or-less aligned with Mercedes.
Sauber's current deal is an example of when the team doesn't have to be aligned with Mercedes; the small Swiss outfit doesn't have the performance nor influence to offer Wehrlein a better future than Mercedes.
Simply put, because of the influence of Ferrari and Renault, the only team where Wehrlein can afford to go is Williams, a Mercedes-supplied team. But due to sponsorship deals, it's fair to wonder whether a driver line up of Lance Stroll and Pascal Wehrlein would have the star power satisfy the team's principal sponsor, Martini.
What if it went the other way and Wehrlein partnered with Felipe Massa? In this scenario, Williams would have to ditch Stroll, which is unfortunately almost impossible because it's thought the wealth his family possesses will influence the team's decision making greatly.
Therefore, the only plausible driver line up where Wehrlein is kept in Formula 1 is if Felipe Massa retires. Unfortunately for Wehrlein, the Brazilian ace recently stated "I have no reason not to stay in Formula 1."
The futures of Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Ocon all looks solidly set in stone. Pascal Wehrlein, sadly, not so much...
Where do you think Wehrlein will end up in 2018? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!