Author: Drew Heaslip Read time: 13m
Being Lewis Hamilton’s team-mate must surely be one of the hardest and most highly pressurised jobs in motorsport. Add to that the expectations placed upon you when you are in one of the most coveted seats on the Formula 1 grid... Mercedes. This is just the place where Valtteri Bottas finds himself going into the 2021 season having been with the Brackley based team since the 2017 campaign. Valtteri replaced the outgoing Nico Rosberg (a man who could tell you exactly how tough it is to be Hamilton’s team-mate) who retired from F1 on the back of a world championship victory in his final year. Yes, Rosberg bested the seemingly unstoppable force that is Lewis Hamilton... but what is it going to take for Bottas to do the same?
Lets take a look at Valtteri’s race form. Undoubtedly he is a talented driver who on a good day can give Lewis something to worry about but for Bottas, whether it be through bad luck or bad form, seems prone to some not so good days! He came to Mercedes from Williams where he had a four season stint and showed lots of potential in a car that sometimes was certainly not the best on the grid. In the time he spent at Williams he partnered Pastor Maldonado in the first year and subsequently beat him in the drivers standings and then went on to partner Felipe Massa, a vastly more experienced driver, for the other three years. In all three years Valtteri finished ahead of Massa in the championship, even going as far as to out-qualify Massa 17-4 in 2016.
The 2017 season rolled around and Bottas now found himself as team-mate (some say “wingman”) to Lewis Hamilton, a triple world champion at that time. It takes a certain mental capacity to be an F1 driver AND be expected to perform as good or better than a triple world champion team-mate! It’s a good thing then that Valtteri has “Sisu” on his side... as well as a good bowl of porridge and a strong coffee! “Sisu” is a Finnish word for the ability to perservere, to pluck up courage and sustain that courage over lengthy periods of time. According to former F1 driver Mika Salo (and a fellow Finnishman) “The Finnish mentality is very good for racing - never give up. We’re very stubborn, jealous and selfish people. So you’d rather do well yourself than let somebody else do well. Everyone is very calm - not a lot of mistakes. I don’t know why it is, but I am the same. Emotional things don’t affect what I do at all.”
Bottas himself has talked about Sisu in interviews and said he “Never gives up”. So why hasn’t Sisu and the copious amounts of porridge and coffee driven him to that world championship win yet? When he joined Mercedes in 2017 he got off to a great start in finishing 3rd in his very first race at the season opener in Australia. At the next race in China he spun behind the safety car dropping from 5th to 12th but managed to claw his way back up to 6th with Hamilton winning the race. He then took his first career pole position at Bahrain eventually finishing 3rd in the race after a tyre pressure problem in the first stint. Fast forward to Russia that year and he took his first career win with Hamilton more than 36 seconds adrift in 4th place. By the end of the 2017 season Bottas had secured a further two race wins and a total of 13 podiums thereby netting him 305 points and a respectable 3rd place in the championship for his first season at Mercedes. It was all looking very promising for Valtteri and I’m sure he approached the 2018 season with the previous years results spurring him on... but then it all seemed to go horribly wrong!
The 2018 season was a dismal one for Valtteri by comparison to the previous year. He didn’t record a single win and managed only 8 podiums. The highlights of his season were two pole positions and the fact that he banked a personal record, currently unbroken, of 7 fastest laps. Ultimately he finished 5th in the championship and many would say that the pressure of driving for the best team on the grid with a now quadruple world champion team-mate was starting to get to him. Bad luck did play a part in that season but there was also a lot of bad form. Had the Sisu vanished?
Enter “Bottas 2.0” for the 2019 season with an absolutely stellar win right out of the box at the season opener in Australia! After his performance in the previous year, nobody had expected this kind of form right from the off. He qualified 2nd, overtook Hamilton (who started on pole) into turn one and he never looked back! He eventually finished the race with Hamilton some 20 seconds behind him in 2nd and just to rub salt into the fresh wound he had dealt to Lewis, he took the fastest lap of the race as well therefor netting himself an extra point under the new regulations for that year. Valtteri accredited his sudden upturn in form to his porridge for breakfast and I’m sure Lewis wondered if he might have to start eating porridge too!
Bottas’ newfound form continued earning him a whopping 15 podiums, 5 poles and 4 race wins keeping Hamilton on his toes throughout the season and eventually leading to Bottas finishing 2nd in the championship and his career best finish. The lead of the championship switched between the Mercedes boys a few times over the course of the season with Bottas fans starting to believe he had really come alive and could take the crown from Hamilton. Sadly for those fans, and Bottas himself, it just wasn’t to be his year after all as Hamilton went on to take his sixth world championship win. However, the 2019 season was a big boost for Bottas with such an upturn in form to build on and having secured his seat at Mercedes for the following year on the back of his career best finish to date of 326 points. He was certainly not about to give up.
Could Valtteri repeat his stunning 2019 Australian win in 2020? He was as fired up as ever to get the season underway and de-throne Hamilton once and for all but with the increasing severity of the global Covid-19 outbreak, the F1 world (and everyone else’s) was turned upside down with the cancellation of the Australian GP just before Friday practice was due to get underway. One by one the races that were due to follow were cancelled or postponed eventually leading to the drivers being out of action until June. Having physically and mentally prepared for the season which is no easy task, to then have to sit at home for several months is not ideal for any F1 driver. Clearly this didn’t do Bottas any harm as when the season finally got going in Austria in June, he took pole position and led the race from start to finish. Rumours circulated of Bottas 3.0 and one must wonder was Hamilton concerned? Unfortunately for Bottas, despite some great performances during the season, some bad form and that pesky old bad luck started to creep back in.
By comparison to his previous (and best) season, in 2020 he banked just 11 podiums to the previous 15 and 2 wins to the previous 4. He still recorded an equalling 5 pole positions and 2 fastest laps to the previous 3, he also was top of the timesheets in many free practice sessions throughout the season, thus showing his raw speed was still there but that when it came to race day he was lacking that speed over the course of the race duration. Some bad luck did play a part in his season. Suffering the same tyre failure problem at the British Grand Prix as Hamilton, he had qualified 2nd and kept up with Hamilton for most of the race but falling back to an eventual 11th place after a pit stop due to the tyre failure. Starting from pole, some debris picked up in the early stages of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix arugably cost him the win leaving him running in 3rd but benefitting from a jump to 2nd when Max Verstappen retired with a tyre failure. By the time they reached the rain soaked Turkish Grand Prix, Hamilton had opened a wide gap between himself and 2nd placed Bottas in the championship. During the Turkish race, Valtteri just couldn’t get to grips with his car, spinning six times in all and finishing a lap down in 14th place from his race winning team-mate.
Eventually he finished the championship in 2nd place again but with just 223 points compared to 326 the year before for the same position. He nearly lost out on 2nd place in the championship to Max Verstappen and the gap between himself and Lewis was a whopping 110 points. So what had happened to “Bottas 3.0”?
Negotiating a contract is a huge mental pressure for an F1 driver. Not knowing where or even if you’ll be driving in the following season. It’s no secret that Bottas is continually only being given 1 year extensions on his original contract and that has to be playing a part in Valtteri’s struggle. Not feeling valued enough by your team to be given a longer term agreement despite being integral to the teams continued conquering of the constructors championship. Essentially, worrying if you will have a seat in F1 the following year will be an added pressure that you don’t need when you need to be at the top of your game mentally as well as physically. Ask Nico Rosberg who managed to beat Lewis as his team-mate in 2016 and he will tell you that he had to play every mental tactic in the book as well as performing consistently well on track. Now imagine trying to do that and at the same time trying to secure your seat for next year... a worry Bottas has had but not as such with Nico who had planned on his retirement if he was to eventually win the championship that year.
By the time they got to the Sakhir Grand Prix last year, Bottas had already had his 1 year extension for 2021 agreed but what happened next, nobody saw coming. Having returned a positive test for Covid-19, Hamilton was ruled out of the race and after a few days of wondering who was going to replace him, it was eventually announced that the honour would fall to George Russell. George is a rising star in Formula 1 with a lot of talent and a lot of support in the Mercedes camp. Bottas probably wasn’t too worried, thinking Russell would be out of his depth going from a Williams to a Mercedes but George took to it like a duck to water, qualifying 2nd and looking for a while like he could win the race. Rumours began to swirl that Russell would be stealing Bottas’ seat for 2021 despite the ink being dry on Valtteri’s contract. Toto Wolff also said publicly that he would be having a chat with Valtteri... he’d been summoned to the headmasters office!
It is now confirmed that Valtteri’s seat at Mercedes is safe. For next this year at least. However the cycle begins again for Bottas, having to most likely compete directly with Hamilton who is now a seven times world champion (if he and Mercedes ever reach a deal!) and knowing that the talented George Russell is now biting at his heels for that Mercedes seat. Whether Valtteri can put all this out of his mind and get the job done this year we will just have to wait and see. Some will say it can never happen as long as he is team-mate to Lewis as Lewis gets preferential treatment from the team. Some say Bottas just needs that extra bit of confidence and “Sisu” in him to take the fight to Hamilton right down to the wire and potentially take the crown away from Hamilton for the first time in four years.
What do YOU think? Is Bottas a future world champion or has his chance well and truly gone or did he even realistically ever have a chance? Let us know!