In the final moments of the qualifying session for last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Mercedes CEO Toto Wolff came on the radio with a few words of encouragement for his driver Valtteri Bottas.
It later emerged the pair had spoken about how they could do more to inspire better performances from each team member. Wolff’s radio message spurring Bottas on was a product of that.
It didn’t quite produce the desired effect: Max Verstappen pipped Bottas to pole position by two hundredths of a second. But no one could deny Mercedes were doing everything to support their driver, a week after he’d been eclipsed by the team’s substitute George Russell in Bahrain.
A similar message was heard during last weekend’s Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix. “Come on, Valtteri” urged Wolff on lap 16. But again, things weren’t going well for car number 77; far worse, in fact.
Bottas got his Imola weekend off to an encouraging start. At the track where he took pole position last year, Bottas topped both practice sessions, raising hopes of a repeat performance.
It wasn’t to be. Throughout Saturday the optimum temperature operating window for his Pirelli tyres eluded him. Lewis Hamilton parked the other W12 on pole position, Bottas the best part of half a second away. At the beginning of last season that gap would have meant second on the grid for Bottas. But the field is much closer in 2021, so he lined up eighth.
Strikingly’, Hamilton has described the handling of Mercedes latest car as “knife-edge”, and Bottas used the same phrase when explaining his ongoing struggle to match his team mate’s lap times.
“It’s a bit [of an] overall thing with our car over the years,” said Bottas. “We quite often struggled in hot conditions and cool has been normally good because we’ve had good tyre warm-up.
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“So we’ve been really trying to develop the car that we don’t overheat the tyres. But that’s come obviously with a negative, that if we need to get quickly temperature in the tyres, some other cars can do it better than us.
“For me personally, for example compared to Lewis, it’s so in the knife-edge in qualifying. Sometimes you get it [to] work, like for me in Q1 when I did a much faster time.
“But for some reason I just couldn’t get them to work in Q3 in the same way. So it’s all about one or two degrees of surface or tyre bulk temperature. It’s hard to explain. Obviously track temp was changing a bit, depending on how much there was cloud et cetera, so maybe that had a bit of a factor.”
While Bottas could produce competitive times after multiple laps on new tyres, he couldn’t do it when needed on the first run, explained the team’s head of trackside operations Andrew Shovlin.
“He did look very strong on Friday and was in a good position, very happy with the car. In qualifying he seemed to be struggling a little bit more for the tyre temperature than Lewis.
“The lap that he did in Q1 on his first run would have would have put him in the top four. He just couldn’t match that lap. That was the third lap of the tyres, moving to the first lap he wasn’t really able to match that.
“So there’s something that we need to understand. The thing with tyre temperature though is often a very small difference has a very big impact on grip.”
These problems appeared to be amplified over the wet opening laps of the race. Bottas lost two places at the start, got stuck behind Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin, and the gap between him and Hamilton in second place opened up quickly. From the moment the Safety Car came in, when racing resumed, until Wolff’s message just eight laps later, Bottas lost 49 seconds to his team mate.
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That is a huge loss, and it’s important to stress there were seven cars (initially) between them, each generally losing ground to the car ahead. But the difficulty Bottas was experiencing brought back memories of his labours in last year’s Turkish Grand Prix, also held on a wet track, though on that occasion he could at least point to car damage as a contributing factor to his problems.
Bottas’s spectacular retirement on Sunday in a collision with Russell, who is widely believed to be first in line for his seat, commanded a lot of attention after the race. It was clear Mercedes took a dim view of Russell’s role in the crash, even if the stewards deemed it a “racing incident”.
But while Russell took the heat in public, behind the scenes Mercedes must be asking why one of their cars was under attack from a Williams in the first place. And, for that matter, why on the lap before the collision Bottas was set to be lapped by Hamilton.
The furious criticism Bottas levied at Russell on his radio, and scenes of him greeting his rival with a raised middle digit after the crash, were ‘heat of the moment’ stuff. As he pointed out afterwards, despite months of speculation Russell could replace him, there is no great animus between the two.
“To be honest, I’ve never really worked that closely with him,” said Bottas. “Obviously, he’s been around for some time because he’s been reserve driver and done some tests for the team and some simulator work. So I know him a little bit. There’s never been any issues and no, nothing changed in Bahrain in terms of that.
“This one obviously I was not happy about how it ended up. But I’m a pretty easygoing guy, there’s no problems, but I can’t say that I’m friends with him, like I can’t say I’m friends with most or any of the drivers really.
“From my side, no issues. But [it] was not ideal because he made me lose a good chunk of points potentially, and I think it was his mistake.”
But there lies the rub: Russell wasn’t about to deprive Bottas of a “good chunk of points”; the Mercedes was heading for precisely two points when they crashed. That will concern them more than the momentary misjudgement by a driver who was trying to overtake one of their cars in a Williams.
“George should have never launched into this manoeuvre,” said Wolff after the race. But, as he also noted, “Valtteri had a bad first 30 laps and shouldn’t have been there.”
It’s starting to look like the words of encouragement will soon need to be replaced by something firmer.
Quotes: Dieter Rencken
Bottas’ Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix team radio transcript
Communications between Bottas, race engineer Ricardo Musconi and Wolff from the first restart of the race until the crash which put the Mercedes out.
|8||Musconi||HPP12 set position three.|
|8||Musconi||Stroll the car ahead, less than a second ahead of him Gasly on X.|
|10||Musconi||Just right behind you.|
|10||Musconi||So pace at the front 30.1.|
|10||Musconi||Stroll, three seconds ahead.|
|12||Musconi||Set position four on the next straight. HPP three, set position four.|
|12||Musconi||Strat six or seven.|
|13||Bottas||Tyres are finally starting to work a bit.|
|13||Musconi||Copy, you are a couple of degrees below Lewis.|
|13||Musconi||Pace at the front 28.8.|
|13||Musconi||And Stroll two seconds ahead.|
|16||Musconi||Currently losing a lot of time behind Stroll.|
|16||Wolff||Come on, Valtteri.|
|16||Musconi||Give us an update on conditions, balance check.|
|19||Bottas||Track is still inters but it’s drying quickly. Tyres are good. Low-grip, balance okay.|
|19||Musconi||Copy all that.|
|19||Musconi||Try diff high speed five for more stability.|
|19||Musconi||So pace at the front 27.0.|
|20||Musconi||[Unclear] dry tyres, he’s on the medium, we’ll let you know how he’s getting on.|
|21||Musconi||And do you think it’s ready now? And do you think it’s ready now?|
|22||Musconi||Vettel is losing time. Vettel is losing time.|
|24||Musconi||Valtteri these tyres will drop a bit and they will get the grip back.|
|24||Bottas||Okay. It’s so hard to follow up I’m trying everything, but can’t get closer.|
|24||Musconi||Keep us up to date with a track.|
|24||Musconi||Re-open diff high-speed two three.|
|25||Musconi||Still no cars going faster on dry.|
|25||Musconi||You completed 25 laps.|
|25||Musconi||Suggested diff exit six for turn seven.|
|27||Musconi||Stroll is in.|
|27||Musconi||Push hard now, it won’t be long.|
|28||Musconi||Gasly on exit, Gasly on exit, he will struggle with warm up.|
|28||Musconi||Chassis wet set position one.|
|28||Musconi||HPP 12 set position five. Box box box.|
|28||Musconi||Brake balance for the line. Pit entry is a slippery, new Tarmac.|
|28||Musconi||Brake balance for the box.|
|28||Musconi||So we’ll be close with Stroll on exit.|
|29||Musconi||So you have overtake, watch out for wheelspin on exit, warm-up is difficult.|
|29||Musconi||So car behind Stroll is Verstappen, the race, we will get blue flags.|
|29||Musconi||You have blue flags for Verstappen.|
|29||Musconi||DRS has been enabled.|
|29||Musconi||So Lewis behind, car behind, don’t make him lose any time.|
|30||Musconi||You’re racing Russell.|
|30||Musconi||So Lewis in the gravel trap at turn seven.|
|30||Musconi||Russell half a second behind.|
|30||Musconi||Bottas and Russell collide|
|31||Bottas||What a fucking cunt.|
|31||Musconi||Are you OK, Valtteri?|
|31||Bottas||Yeah. Big one. All good.|
|31||Musconi||Just be careful. They’re deploying Safety Car.|
|31||Musconi||And go P0 before you jump out|
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