How Do You Beat One of the Best Ever?
A question Valtteri Bottas must find an answer to. And fast.
If Valtteri Bottas is to become a world champion, he faces the unenviable task of beating Lewis Hamilton, in the same machinery, over the course of a season.
Fernando Alonso tied on points with a rookie Hamilton in 2007 during their fractious single season together at McLaren but technically lost out, courtesy of having achieved fewer wins.
So, how did Button and Rosberg achieve it?
Button and Hamilton battle at the 2011 Hungarian Grand Prix. (Photo: www.motorsportchannel.com.)
2011 was something of an annus horribilis for Hamilton, during which he allowed multiple issues in his personal life to affect his performance on the track. There were tensions with then-girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger and, even more so, with his father. Anthony Hamilton had managed his son’s career since the age of eight but, during 2010, the driver decided that he would rather have an independent manager who would allow him more freedom. It would take father and son several years to fully repair their relationship.
These stresses and strains manifested themselves mostly in the form of erratic driving and Hamilton suffered an error-filled season. He and Felipe Massa were practically inseparable on track; not in the sense that they were closely matched as much as that they managed to have no fewer than five collisions during the season.
That’s not to discredit Button, who had an excellent season and was clearly ‘best of the rest’ behind a runaway Sebastian Vettel. It was arguably his best year in the sport, even including his title win in 2009, and featured the truly epic, four-hour Canadian Grand Prix where Button came from last place to steal the victory from Vettel on the final lap.
It was a clear dip in form for Hamilton, though, compared to 2010 and 2012 when he was held back more by McLaren’s lack of reliability and operational issues.
Hamilton has clearly matured greatly in the decade since and is now generally able to keep any personal troubles away from the track. Bottas will need to do more than rely on some off days.
The infamous Mercedes crash at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in 2016. (Photo: www.telegraph.co.uk.)
Lewis Hamilton versus Nico Rosberg was the ultimate friends-turned-foes story of the early hybrid era. Rosberg spent years trying to gain a psychological advantage over his rival but, having fallen short in 2014 and 2015, realised he needed to focus more on himself.
The start of the season went very much Rosberg’s way, with a string of issues blighting Hamilton - he was hit by Bottas at the start in Bahrain, before consecutive power unit failures left him far down the grid at the next two grands prix. He came back strongly, however, and – despite starting from last in Belgium after serving a penalty for having used too many power units – was leading at the summer break.
At a time when driver weight was still a critical factor, Rosberg decided to stop cycling in an attempt to lose weight from his legs during the break and succeeded in losing one kilogram. That translates to around four hundredths of a second per lap and Rosberg took pole from Hamilton in Japan by just two hundredths. It is those kind of marginal gains that can make all the difference in a season of fine margins.
Ultimately, another engine failure from the lead of the Malaysian Grand Prix would prove to be too much for the Briton to make up in the final races of the year – despite winning all of them – and, whilst Hamilton’s shocking reliability was undeniably a crucial factor in 2016, Rosberg had to be there to take every opportunity presented to him and he unfailingly was.
One last Hamilton-Bottas duel for 2021? (Photo: www.auto24.ee.)
So, what have we learnt?
That Bottas will likely need to extract every ounce of his ability, go to extreme lengths to enhance his performance wherever possible, make almost no mistakes, and could probably do with a decent slice of luck. But hey, stranger things have happened.
He has started the last two seasons strongly with a controlled win at the opening grand prix, before falling back as Hamilton builds up momentum and he - understandably - struggles to match the most successful driver of all time. He will have to find a way to keep up the challenge in 2021, however, as it looks like it could well be his final season with Mercedes. George Russell proved he could at least match the Finn without any preparation at last year's Sakhir Grand Prix and, once again, Bottas has only been given a one-year contract.
He seems to be in a great place in his life right now; whilst it was unknown to most, he was going through a divorce in 2019, but is now in a new relationship and seems content and motivated.
Will we see Bottas 3.0 or 4.0 or whatever software update he's up to now this year? Could we get yet another Finnish world champion? And maybe one that would even break into a smile?!