Bottas has been given F1’s dream seat at Mercedes but can the Finn deliver alongside Lewis Hamilton?
There was no surprise when Mercedes announced that Valtteri Bottas would be the replacement for Nico Rosberg. What is something of a surprise is that it’s believed to be only a one-year deal, with options for 2018 and beyond. That means that for Bottas’ career, 2017 is massive – even more so than driving for the reigning champions already was – and I’m not sure he’s up to the challenge.
Don’t get me wrong, Bottas is an excellent driver and has performed well for Williams. Excellently in fact. There have been plenty of times where he’s quietly pulled out a great result or made an alternative strategy work. But for me he hasn’t shown enough of a spark to suggest that he’ll be anything more than a solid number two driver at Mercedes, not through choice, but because Hamilton will just be far too quick for him. Lewis has even apparently given his ‘blessing’ (does that make Bottas #blessed?) to having Valtteri as a team mate, probably because he knows he can easily beat him.
There have of course been highlights – qualifying 3rd at Montreal in the wet in his debut year was remarkable, and he’s had some great charges through the field from low grid positions. He’s made very good use of his tyre management skills (thrilling!) and taken full advantage of DRS, but in 2017 these qualities are likely to be of less importance than in previous seasons, so his strengths will hold less importance.
Valtteri’s first team mate in F1 was Pastor Maldonado, and he went well against him. It started out fairly close between them but by the end of the year Bottas was comfortably emerging as the quicker driver and that’s what you’d expect from a highly-rated rookie against someone like Maldonado. But then Felipe Massa joined the team and although he beat him as well, I don’t think he did it convincingly enough.
While it’s true that Bottas outscored Massa in all three years they were team mates, he didn’t really stamp his dominance over him until 2016 when Massa was starting to think about his pending retirement. What’s worse than that for me is that across those years it wasn’t usually Bottas who hit the teams’ highs – it was Massa who took pole in Austria, it was Massa hunting down Hamilton for the win in Abu Dhabi, it was Massa who snatched the lead at Silverstone.
In that last instance Bottas was quicker but instead of taking the lead himself, he just asked the team to make Massa let him through, which of course they didn’t. He eventually finished ahead of him in 3rd but it was a very passive display when there was potentially a better result on offer.
It seems like Bottas was happy to let the opportunities come to him rather than actively going out and trying to make them happen. It’s the complete opposite of what you traditionally expect from a young driver.
That’s by no means a bad thing, but opportunities aren’t going to simply come to him at Mercedes, because Hamilton won’t give him any. If Bottas is to succeed at Merc he’ll have to try and make things happen, to be more aggressive. We haven’t seen much of that from him in his career so far (and when we have, it’s often been a little clumsy) so why, after four seasons in F1, would that suddenly change in 2017?
He has to change though, because that one-year deal is telling. Mercedes need Bottas this season because with major changes to the cars and the tyres, now is not the time for a team with title aspirations to be taking a punt on a younger, less experienced driver.
In 2018 things will be different, though. Mercedes junior drivers Wehrlein and Ocon will have an extra year of experience. Vettel’s Ferrari contract will be up; Alonso’s McLaren contract will be up. Bottas has to prove to Mercedes he’s a better choice than all of them, and that’s before you factor in some of the quality drivers in the midfield looking to move up the grid.
I reckon the only way he can convince Mercedes he’s the man for them beyond this season is to be as close to Hamilton as Rosberg was. While Bottas has consistently performed at a very high level, rarely has he stepped up to do something a little bit special in the way we often see from the likes of Hamilton, Ricciardo and more recently, Verstappen. For that reason and the ones I mentioned above, I don’t think he can manage that.
If Bottas does lose the Mercedes seat at the end of year, where does he go? Back to Williams seems an obvious choice, but that’s a seat the likes of Hulkenberg, Grosjean, Perez and even Wehrlein might have their eyes on if Williams have a decent season. There’s also Ferrari, but he’ll be up against the same drivers and with the likes of Charles Leclerc on the fringes, that might not be a long-term thing either.
There’s a real risk that Bottas’ career could go down the path Heikki Kovalianen’s did. He was another promising young Finn who was hired to a top team not necessarily because he was wanted, but because he was the best available at the time. Although he was less experienced than Bottas he was talented, but he got destroyed by Hamilton and after that he couldn’t get a competitive drive.
Bottas is a better driver than Kovalainen but F1 is a fickle business. I hope I’m proved wrong.