Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, Sochi Autodrom, 2021

Why Mercedes’ “tactical” power unit change for Bottas could backfire

2021 Russian Grand Prix

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Mercedes’ decision to fit a fresh power unit to Valtteri Bottas’ car for the second race in a row will inevitably prompt speculation the change has been made to help his team mate Lewis Hamilton.

Fitting fresh parts to Bottas’ car alleviates concerns Mercedes might have about whether he can reach the end of the season without a penalty. This was the reason the team gave for swapping Bottas’ power unit: “We are taking the tactical opportunity to put another [power unit] in the pool with [Valtteri Bottas],” they confirmed.

On the drivers’ parade before the race Bottas said the change was a consequence of his relatively poor qualifying position for the race.

“I think it’s tactical because I want to make it to the end of the race, for sure,” he said. “Of course you can always sometimes choose where you take it

“Having quite unlucky qualifying yesterday we decided it’s the right thing to do. I still believe I have a chance to come up very high and I want to be on the podium for sure.”

But with Hamilton’s championship rival Max Verstappen set to start from the back of the grid due to his own power unit change, this also looks like an opportunity to ensure Bottas can contain the threat of Mercedes’ biggest rival. It recalls Ferrari’s decision to needlessly incur a gearbox change penalty for Felipe Massa at the United States Grand Prix in 2012, which moved his team mate Fernando Alonso up the grid and allowed both drivers to start from the preferable side of the grid.

Mercedes dropped hints the change was coming in their post-qualifying interviews yesterday. Prior to that Red Bull suspected Mercedes would use the opportunity offered by Verstappen’s penalty to fit a fresh engine to Hamilton’s car, as there have been doubts over his supply of parts.

Instead Bottas has taken a change for the second race running, having done the same at Monza. He recovered superbly on that occasion, rising from the back of the grid to finish on the podium.

As this is the second time this year Bottas has exceeded the maximum number of power unit elements, his penalty is less severe than Verstappen’s, and indeed that of the other two drivers who have changed parts, Charles Leclerc and Nicholas Latifi. Bottas has a new engine, turbo and MGU-H, which translates to a 15-place grid drop. Once other penalties are taken into account he will lose a total of 10 positions, falling from seventh to 16th, four places ahead of Verstappen.

The Mercedes driver should therefore be able to maintain his position ahead of Verstappen at the start, and even if he doesn’t he should still be able to stay close enough to the Red Bull driver that he can cover his pit stop strategy. This is how Mercedes can use Bottas to legitimately interfere with Verstappen’s race and hinder his progress to the front of the field.

But it also brings significant risks. Mercedes have dropped Bottas well behind the Red Bull of Sergio Perez and within range of Verstappen. It’s hard to avoid the impression that Hamilton’s position in the drivers’ championship weighs heavier in this calculation than their slender lead in the constructors’ championship.

If this power unit change wasn’t essential for Bottas, and he fails to stay ahead of Verstappen in today’s race, Mercedes may well rue their decision to sacrifice nine places on the grid.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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16 comments on “Why Mercedes’ “tactical” power unit change for Bottas could backfire”

  1. If I remember rightly they never even changed Massa’ gearbox in 2012, they just removed the FIA seal which gave an automatic penalty … I might be wrong but I remember hearing that

    Reply moderated
  2. It’s definitely a risky move. While the Mercedes has been rather impressive at Sochi, it is still a hard track to follow other cars. A podium for Bottas? That’s a tall order. Then again, Bottas did show at Monza he is capable of doing such things.

  3. I feel this article is mainly here to pad content. The risk for Mercedes is negligible and the benefits potentially very high. You are inventing dreams here!

    1. Inventing *drama that was supposed to say

    2. The risk are not negligible. Monza shows the unexpected can happen.

  4. Keith is really milking this for all its worth…

  5. I actually believe it is a very risky move and you have to wonder why.
    It makes a lot of sense for several reasons.
    1. Takes him away from the rough young guns in front who have enough pace to destroy his strategy if he’d started 7th or 8th as Verstappen can quickly make up positions and be at an advantage if he is stuck behind the front row drivers.
    2. Allows him to run a different strategy and almost at full pace after clearing slower drivers.
    3. Keeps Verstappen behind by at least 1 position.

    The disadvantages however are.
    1. Crash
    2. Crash again.
    3. Lose a front wing
    4. Puncture.
    5. Wrong timing of safety car.

    1. Well, thinking about it, a crash with MV wouldn’t actually be a disadvantage for Mercedes. Given Bottas has ‘pin ball’ form this season already, it’s likely to cause a little unease at Red Bull.

  6. Swapping Hamilton’s engine would have been absurd I think (though that might be proven spectacularly wrong if his present engine blows during the race). Sticking Bottas at the back would have some logic had Bottas ever shown any ability to keep anyone behind him on track for any length of time, yet alone Max Verstappen, who usually breezes past him in these scenarios. I can’t see Bottas lasting even the first lap ahead. He could still be ‘useful’ to cause a hiccup at pit stops and Bottas should at least be trailing Max relatively closely for most of the race, particularly given this is one of his good tracks.

  7. I think i can see why they’ve done this. Its to make sure Verstappen serves some element of his 3 position penality.
    Whilst there are plenty of cars ahead of verstappen, doing this means there is a significant car ahead of Verstappen to limit his progress through the field in the early stages of the race. Mercedes must believe if they have a decent car ahead of him as a ‘blocker’ this will lead to the ‘Hamilton advantage’ they need out of this race. Also Its now just Hamilton vs those cars ahead of him, there’s no quesition now of team orders.

    My only question is the new Redbull power unit. F1 froze engine development, yet Honda seems to be still providing improvements to their unit. I wonder if the F1 had a chance to check over Verstappen’s engine after the last crash, or even if a new engine for Bottas means a chance to change the way its set up. eg if Bottas engine wasn’t set up fast enough for the race , then this ‘engine change’ would be the only other way to change that.

    Tactics ….

    1. Well that did’t work. Verstappen finding no resistance from Bottas to over take him by lap 7.

      1. i wonder if Bottas is kind of tired of fighting cause of all this mess.

  8. Can’t agree. The comparison to massa in 2012 is odd because massa was ahead on the grid.

    It makes perfect sense because Bottas would still be ahead of verstappen on the grid after the change. Since Bottas is not in the title fight it doesn’t matter for that issue and he would still finish ahead of verstappen, theoretically, not costing their wdc leader anything.

  9. Well, it was obviously done for other reasons since Bottas held up Verstappen less than Perez has throughout the season ;)

    1. They maybe thought at sochi with merc engine advantage and bottas usually being strong he’d keep him behind more, I expected it too.

  10. Bottas’ pitiful performance today demonstrated why he deserved to be fired.

    He would have finished well outside the top ten without luck.

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