Bottas’s Time Coming to an End with Mercedes?

Valtteri Bottas started 2019 on the best possible terms. He drove a convincing race en route to his fourth win with Mercedes at the Australian Grand Prix. His demeanor was strong and confident. His new beard gave him a more grizzly persona compared to his clean shaven serious personality during his first year with Mercedes in 2017. During interviews with the media, Bottas was relaxed and looking forward to an impending battle with Lewis Hamilton. Five months later, however, everything has changed as rumors swirl concerning Bottas being let go at the end of the year.

Bottas joined Mercedes from Williams Racing following the retirement of Nico Rosberg in 2016. Bottas had a successful tenure with Williams Racing. He competed alongside F1 legend, Felipe Massa, and secured nine podium finishes in his 77 starts. Upon the announcement of signing Bottas, Toto Wolff discussed the decision,

“Valtteri is a no-nonsense guy: down to earth, straightforward and very focused.”

“But now it’s time for the next level, to see how he can step up to challenge for race wins and for Championships.”

https://youtu.be/QLgORt4W8Jk

Bottas went on to have a respectable first season with Mercedes in 2017. He managed 3 wins and 13 podium finishes (including victories) in the 20 race season. Unfortunately for Valtteri, Hamilton went on to claim nine victories as he clinched his fourth World Championship with two races remaining. In Valtteri’s own terms, the season was a disappointment. He faded towards the end of the season prior to his victory at the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi. However, considering the immense pressure of racing for Mercedes and competing against Lewis Hamilton, it was always going to be difficult for Bottas to stand out.

The Finn would have thought that his 2017 season would have given him the framework to build a sustained title push in 2018. He had completed a full season at the pinnacle constructor in the sport during the V6 Hybrid era and there were no excuses for failing to challenge Hamilton in 2018.

2018 went on to be Bottas’s worst season of his career. He failed to register a single win all season long even though there were opportunities to secure victory. Whether down to luck, team orders, or the sheer lack of race pace, Bottas continued to fall short of expectations. The turning point and ultimately the affirmation of the struggles ahead for Bottas’s 2018 season came at the end of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Bottas was leading with three laps to go but suffered a puncture after running over debris early on the straight. It was a brutal stroke of misfortune for the Finn that was later compounded by a retirement at the Austrian Grand Prix later in the season after starting on pole.

Rumors were already swirling about Bottas’s  future with Mercedes following the 2018 season. Hamilton achieved his fifth Driver’s Championship and looked unstoppable in the latter half of the 2018 season. Bottas faded into obscurity with four consecutive fifth place finishes to end the year. Yet, he was given another chance entering the 2019 campaign, but most knew throughout the paddock that this was going to be his last opportunity.

Bottas showed up to preseason testing at Barcelona with a new demeanor and yes a beard. The Finnish driver had previously kept a clean shaven look and, as Toto Wolff stated, a down to earth personality. Bottas had dramatically changed the aura surrounding him for the 2019 season. He looked like someone out for revenge. As reported by F1 Insider,

“He bends his upper body forward and leans on the table- not a defensive reaction but a sign of aggressiveneness.”

When was asked about having a new look and new attitude, Bottas replied,

“A new Valtteri.”

“This year, I needed a new attitude to achieve my goals.”

It was perhaps Bottas’s lack of aggression that held him back in the first two seasons, and the apparent down to earth attitude that Toto Wolff liked became a weakness not a strength. He needed to take the fight to Lewis Hamilton and in some respects the Mercedes team. He came into 2019 fighting for his job and the opportunity to prove that he is worthy of a World Championship challenge. He needed to prove that he could handle the pressure and make daring passes when the opportunity presented itself.

He made his first true statement of intent at the 2019 Australian Grand Prix and backed up his new “aggressive” mentality. He beat Hamilton to turn 1 off the start and subsequently dominated the remainder of the race. He went on to achieve three consecutive pole positions from Shanghai to Barcelona, and managed six podium finishes including two wins in the first six races. He was putting the fight to Lewis Hamilton trailing the Brit by only 17 points entering the Canadian Grand Prix.

Unfortunately, Valtteri Bottas was never able to keep that strong start going. He has not won a Grand Prix since his victory in Baku earlier in the year. He has continued to achieve podium finishes, but his gap to Lewis Hamilton in the championship has widened considerably. He is now under threat by the charging Max Verstappen, who has won two of the past four races and was in contention for the win this past weekend at Hungary. Bottas, on the other hand, finished fifteenth in Germany following a crash coming out of turn 1 on the slippery wet surface. He then went on to a disappointing eighth place finish at Hungary after qualifying second only to make contact with both Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc on the first lap.

As the summer break is now in full swing, drivers are able to take a short breather and regroup for a late season push in the final nine races. Bottas is not mathematically out of contention for the Driver’s Championship, but for some reason it feels like he has no chance. The aggressive new Bottas no longer seems present. Luck has undoubtedly not gone his way. At some point, however, this lack of luck gives way to driver skill and Bottas just has not been able to live up to his own expectations and that of the team this season.

Esteban Ocon, Mercedes reserve driver, has impressed the German constructor with his constant inquisitiveness and skill behind the simulator. He was impressive last season with Racing Point with 11 points finishes and and finish position of 11.6. In 2017, Ocon managed an average finishing position of 8.4. When asked about the upcoming decision to keep Bottas, Toto Wolff responded,

“It’s a question between Esteban and Valtteri.”

“It’s making a decision on stability, a great personality, and a very good driver versus giving youth a chance and the opportunity in the car with all the reward and risks it can bring.”

Nico Rosberg shared his opinion about who will take the drive alongside Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes,

“I tend to think this [in regards to Hungary result] is the end of [Bottas’s] race seat as well… and I think they [Mercedes] are going to put Ocon in the car.”

Esteban Ocon has been widely regarded as a talented young driver who never deserved to be without a Formula 1 seat in 2019. With all that has gone on with Valtteri Bottas over the past few seasons, Mercedes may just be leaning to add a young driver that could emulate Max Verstappen with Red Bull or Charles Leclerc with Ferrari. The addition of Esteban Ocon could also provide some cover for Mercedes should Hamilton decide to leave or retire after the 2020 season.

Valtteri Bottas is a skilled driver who will unequivocally land a seat in Formula 1 should he decide to stay in the sport. Teams like Haas F1 and Renault may be looking for drivers in the offseason and the experience that Bottas could provide would be invaluable. It is lamentable that the Finn has never found his stride with Mercedes. Perhaps he could tap into whatever he had earlier this year and bounce back to take the Championship in what would be an amazing comeback. This is not likely, however, and it seems that he will be on his way out of Mercedes come the end of the season.

*Photo Credit-Unsplash: chuttersnap

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