Valtteri Bottas wasn’t supposed to become Lewis Hamilton’s team mate at Mercedes in 2017.Nico Rosberg signed a two-year extension on his contract in 2016, which would have kept him alongside Hamilton until the end of 2018. But then he won the championship and decided he’d had enough.
So Bottas, who was supposed to spend 2017 alongside rookie Lance Stroll, instead joined Hamilton and the reigning world champions.
Five years on, Bottas’ stint at Mercedes is coming to an end, as has been on the cards for some time. Whether or not he was ready for the opportunity when it came, he got it, and then it got away from him. Where did it go wrong?
The initial signs were encouraging for Bottas. He acquitted himself well in 2017 when Mercedes, who crushed their rivals over the previous three seasons, suddenly found the competition much tougher.
At the fourth round of the season in Sochi, the flying Ferraris swept the front row. But Bottas took advantage of their slipstream at the start, swept past Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, and duly chalked up his first win.
Had he kept up that one-in-four of strike rate he’d have 23 wins by now instead of nine. Hamilton took nine wins in 2017 alone, and has tallied 46 during his time as team mate to Bottas.
Those stark numbers illustrate how Bottas ultimately failed to measure up against the reigning champion. On the face of it some might ask why Mercedes has taken so long to make a change. They didn’t lack alternatives: Daniel Ricciardo could have arrived from Red Bull in 2019 and junior driver Esteban Ocon has been waiting in the wings for years.
But it would do Bottas a disservice to argue this is what Mercedes should have done. His performances have been better than the raw wins count indicates. He’s contributed a respectable 41% of Mercedes’ points as team mate to Hamilton. Compare that to Max Verstappen’s recent team mates, for example.
Wolff was fulsome in his praise of Bottas after his departure was announced, saying it “hasn’t been an easy process or a straightforward decision” and that “he would absolutely have deserved to stay with the team” had they kept him.
Although Hamilton has tended to qualify ahead, it’s not as if Bottas has been consistently far from his pace. He’s come out ahead slightly less than a third of the time, and when he hasn’t he’s often been within a tenth of a second of Hamilton. That is nothing to be sniffed at considering Bottas is up against a driver who has officially chalked up 101 pole positions.
There is no single area which Bottas or Mercedes can an identify as the sole cause of his deficit to Hamilton. On average he’s slightly slower in qualifying and slightly further away again in the races.
But what’s done for him is the trend has gone in the wrong direction over the five seasons. The peaks have become rarer, the dips slightly more frequent.
That was starkly illustrated last year, where the threat to Mercedes from their competition receded, yet Bottas was nowhere in the title fight with his team mate. In 17 races, Bottas only led Hamilton home four times, and on each of those occasions Hamilton could point to some external factor such as a penalty which had compromised his afternoon.
Once the title fight was over, Bottas faced an unexpected new threat when George Russell was drafted in as a short-notice replacement for an unwell Hamilton at the Sakhir Grand Prix. This was a clear indication Mercedes were weighing their options for the future, though Toto Wolff made it plain from the outset there would be no change to their intended line-up for 2021.
The weekend reflected badly on Bottas. Russell came startlingly close to out-qualifying him, then passed him at the start and seemed on his way to victory when misfortune intervened for both. Capping Bottas’ misery, Russell swept past him on fresher tyres late in the race.
While Mercedes denied that race tipped the scales in Russell’s favour, it clearly prompted discussions relating to how Bottas might improve his performance, for from the very next race Wolff took the rare step of appearing on the radio to offer him words of encouragement. It didn’t have the desired effect, as Bottas was beaten to pole position and victory by Verstappen while a still unwell Hamilton followed them home.
The encouragements from Wolff continued into 2021 but have often served as unfortunate footnotes to Bottas’ least notable performances. It increasingly seemed the writing was on the wall regarding Bottas’ future, and his competitiveness has taken a further hit, with notable lows at Imola and Baku. However we must allow for the fact that he’s had to play the ‘number two’ role far more than previously as Hamilton has faced his stiffest title fight to date.
Whatever frustration Bottas may have felt about that situation he largely kept under his hat until yesterday, when he gave the team a scare by coming close to taking the bonus point for fastest lap away from Hamilton when he had been specifically told not to.
But as today’s announcement demonstrates, Bottas already knew by then his days at the team are numbered. That news can only have come as a painful blow to him: No driver arrives in Formula 1 with a goal any lower than becoming world champion, and Bottas is trading a place at the top team for one which lies ninth in the championship.
Nonetheless, he has spent half a decade in a seat he was never meant to take in the first place alongside the most successful driver F1 has ever seen, and that is no mean feat.
Bottas versus Hamilton at Mercedes
Data up to and including the 2021 Dutch Grand Prix:
- 2017 F1 team mate battles: Hamilton vs Bottas
- 2018 F1 team mate battles: Hamilton vs Bottas
- 2019 F1 team mate battles: Hamilton vs Bottas
- 2020 F1 team mate battles: Hamilton vs Bottas
- 2021 F1 team mate battles at mid-season: Hamilton vs Bottas
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