Bottas in Barcelona - The Beginning of the End?
Despite the official line from Mercedes, surely time is running out for Bottas?
Back towards the end of the 2019 F1 season, I wrote an article on why I thought Valtteri Bottas was an underrated driver. But with a season and bit of racing since then, I decided now was the time to see if I still felt this way. Here's what I discovered...
2019 has been an up and down year for the Finn - but is he better or worse than people say he is?
First and foremost, I think Valtteri Bottas is still a solid driver. He's proven himself to be a useful wingman for Lewis Hamilton from time to time and has been instrumental in helping Mercedes win their last five Constructors Championships. But with that being said, he's still not really set the F1 world alight in the way that other drivers have. Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo all come to mind here as examples of drivers that have over the last year. Bottas meanwhile, seems a bit...beige.
Bottas finished in second place overall in 2019. But he was 87 points behind Hamilton in first. With four wins to his name compared to Lewis' eleven, it wasn't quite the comeback that Bottas would have been hoping for.
2020 would be even worse for the Finn. Not only did Hamilton dominate him again, but he beat him by a whopping 124 points this time. Bare in mind that Lewis didn't race in Sakhir because he had Covid and the 2020 calendar was shorter than normal. What's even worse (yes really) is that Max Verstappen was just 9 points behind him, closing the gap from 2019's deficit by a massive 39 points.
Then the extra cherry on top of Bottas' least favourite cake was George Russell showing him up in Sakhir. If you didn't see the main moment in question, or just want to re-live it, take a look at the clip below.
Despite Russell's race ending badly for him (through no fault of his own mind you), Bottas should have been able to keep Russell at bay. But he was outshone by the young Brit and this has certainly raised some question marks and ignited debate across the F1 community.
All thing considered, you can understand why Mercedes chose to keep him for 2021. Continuity has proven to be a strength of Mercedes and Bottas has proven to be a good number two driver as he doesn't really challenge Hamilton consistently and gives the team the points they need to keep their hands on the Constructors Trophy.
But 2021 could have finally been the moment of change for Bottas in a season that looks set to be very close between Mercedes and Red Bull. In other words, a perfect time for Bottas to take things to the next level and get his mojo back. Despite the winter break however, Bottas 4.0 doesn't seem to have been able to materialize in 2021 thus far.
In 2021, Bottas finished third in Bahrain (not bad) but then had a massive shunt with Russell in Imola which raised some more questions. Regardless of who you think was to blame for the accident, Bottas realistically shouldn't have been so far down the pecking order in the first place to even give Russell the possibility of overtaking a Mercedes. Hamilton meanwhile spun off the track and had to recover back to second, proving that you can overtake in the Mercedes. So what's Bottas' excuse?
Portugal saw Bottas finish third again but he was also overtaken superbly by Hamilton midway through the race. Bottas didn't fight his teammate anywhere near hard enough to prove that he's got what it takes to fight for the Championship. Lewis later overtook Max for the lead but at least Max put up more of a fight.
Photo Credit: Mercedes Media Centre
Then we arrive in Barcelona. This is a track where qualifying means a lot more than it does on other tracks because of the slim chances of overtaking during the race. So by qualifying in third, Bottas was already putting himself at a disadvantage. Come Sunday though, there's always a chance for some drama. But Bottas lived up to the old saying of "Anything can happen in Formula 1, but it usually doesn't."
For the entire duration of the Grand Prix, Bottas was pretty much nowhere. Charles Leclerc in the Ferrari overtook him on Lap 1. It then took Bottas way too long in my opinion to get back past him, considering that the Ferrari is nowhere near as good a car as the Mercedes this year. Even then, Bottas couldn't put the pressure on Max up ahead. He was told he might catch Max on the last lap of the race (but I think we all knew he wouldn't) and yet he didn't quicken the pace to try and get to that point sooner. He also didn't make things easy for Hamilton towards the end of the race when the World Champion was on a mission to catch Verstappen. Whilst you don't always have to help your teammate, this didn't seem like the time for Bottas to suddenly decide to get racy. Especially after not racing him at all really in Portugal. Pitting towards the end to claim fastest lap, he couldn't even get this as Verstappen took it from him in the final laps of the race. So despite finishing third, it was a bit of a disaster race for Bottas.
One has to wonder how long Mercedes will retain him. I think they'll keep him until the end of the season but I don't see him with them in 2022. Other drivers like Esteban Ocon and George Russell have been waiting patiently in the wings for their chance to step up to Mercedes (they are part of the Mercedes driver program after all) and with how both are currently driving, I don't see the harm in partnering one of them with Lewis next year.
Mercedes are getting ready for another powerful driver line-up.
It should also be noted that other Mercedes drivers like F3 driver Frederick Vesti will be looking at a chance to get into a Mercedes seat in a few years time so Mercedes will want to make sure their legacy of great drivers can continue and that they won't be giving seats to those who don't deserve it.
Now some of you reading this may still be thinking that Bottas deserves to keep his seat. After all, he's still towards the top end of the field and performance wise, both in driving and point scoring abilities, he's easily in the top five. But for someone at this level, the last couple of seasons have been bad for him. We only need to look at his predecessor in Mercedes to prove this. Nico Rosberg was beaten in 2014 and 2015 by Hamilton. But then in 2016, the German fought back and triumphed over his teammate to snatch the 2016 Drivers' Title away from him. He then made a bold move and retired from the sport, thus ensuring that Lewis would never be able to beat him in Formula 1 again. Talk about mind games.
Bottas meanwhile, has been with Mercedes since 2017 and the closest he's gotten to beating Lewis was in his debut year for the team, when he was just fifty eight points behind Lewis. And he was in third place that year. So now that we're in Bottas' fifth year with the team, it's make or break time. If he doesn't get close to Hamilton by the end of the year - closer than in 2017 - then I think it's time for him to step aside.
This time around, I chat with Phil Hanson, Filipe Albuquerque and Fabio Scherer.
As of now, I don't think Bottas is doing enough to be deserving of the Mercedes seat in 2022 when there are other drivers available that could not only do a better job but could also make Formula 1 more interesting. I used to think Bottas was an underrated driver. Now though, I'm not sure. For me, he's a bit like plain toast with butter. Nice enough but there are much more enjoyable flavours available.
What do you think of Bottas? Am I being too harsh? Or not harsh enough? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.