Toto Wolff felt Valtteri Bottas’s Portuguese Grand Prix “kind of flatlined” after a mid-race radio message, but Bottas’s concerns are bigger than his Formula 1 team boss’s misplaced regret.
Bottas was passed by Max Verstappen for second place after emerging from his pitstop, as Verstappen benefitted from stopping the previous lap and having his tyres up to temperature, and the gap went up to almost four seconds as Bottas brought his hard tyres in.
He then started to catch the Red Bull and on lap 44, after cutting the gap to 2.5s with a lap half a second quicker than Verstappen, Wolff burst over Bottas’s team radio just as his race engineer was relaying a gap and lap time message to say: “Hunt him down Valtteri you are the quickest car.”
Wolff’s interjections have happened sparingly since the end of last year, following a conversation between the pair about how Bottas can feel more support, but post-race Wolff almost seemed to regret that message.
“I thought it works well,” he said. “It actually didn’t work well this time! So I maybe need to shut up next time, or at least discuss it with him.”
And asked whether Bottas needs this kind of motivation, Wolff added: “I don’t know. I need to speak to him again.
“He’s mentally strong when you see how he recovered from last weekend [the previous race in which Bottas struggled then had a huge crash with George Russell].
“And he was really catching up. He was hunting him down. But when I came on the radio, it kind of flatlined. Maybe not [going to get on the radio] in the future anymore.”
Bottas rightly pointed out that this was not unusual now. “There’s been many times that he [Wolff] opened the radio to say something,” the Finn said. “It’s all supportive and it shows there’s the support and the passion behind [the driver] and it never hurts.
“Obviously I’m always giving it every single bit I have on track. But it’s good.”
And the facts of the race don’t really justify any concern from Wolff’s side because while Bottas’s charge did falter soon after the radio message the timing is little more than coincidence.
In the seven or so laps after the radio message Bottas cut the gap to Verstappen in half again, getting agonisingly close to drawing within DRS range of the Red Bull on lap 51.
But two laps later Bottas’s hopes of snatching second were ended by the sensor issue that briefly caused him to lose power and, in the process, fall more than five seconds adrift of Verstappen.
That was the decisive moment that ended that charge but another one had happened many laps earlier – and it wasn’t Wolff’s radio message.
Bottas losing the lead having started from pole position risks being one of the key moments we reflect on later in the year as causing his title hopes to slip away.
He arrived in Portugal already 28 points behind team-mate Lewis Hamilton after his non-finish at Imola and is now 37 points back after Hamilton’s win at Algarve. It took Bottas six races for the deficit to get that big last season.
Had he converted pole into victory, the gap would still be big, but Bottas would have been within a race win’s worth of points. That’s a slightly arbitrary threshold to declare as an acceptable deficit but the point is that at the third round of the season Bottas had his first chance to underline the title credentials he insists he has and prove he is in this championship battle.
But he failed to do that. And while the basic reasons why his race was (in his own words) “disappointing” were clear – he lacked Hamilton’s pace in the first stint, struggled to get the hard tyre working at the start of the second, and then had that sensor glitch – the cause was not immediately understood.
“When you start from the pole position, you have only one target for the race and that is to win the race,” Bottas said.
“It didn’t happen so I’m disappointed. But I don’t really know why in the first stint I didn’t really have the pace.
“I felt everything in terms of the race start, the restart, everything was good from my side but I could see quite early on in the race that, with the mediums, I just didn’t have pace like Lewis and Max had.
“I have no idea why. I don’t have the explanation.”
That’s a big concern. It has cost him a very good chance at a win but it’s also something he needs to quickly understand or it risks biting him again.
He could not break clear of Verstappen or Hamilton and when he was behind Hamilton, in particular, he could not stay close either.
“He wasn’t very different in terms of pace, but once Lewis was ahead he was struggling to hang with him,” said Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin.
“But he was suffering at both ends at different times. Sometimes the rear, sometimes the front.
“He got on to the hard tyre and he said it all felt great [once up to temperature], so we’ll go through that in the next couple of days ahead of Barcelona.”
Wolff believes Bottas “will be on top form” again, like he was in qualifying to pip Hamilton to pole. There was also an effort to divert attention away from Bottas and onto elements that Mercedes could have influenced better: stopping later than Verstappen and being vulnerable on cold tyres, and the issue that put his engine into what Wolff called “a safety mode”.
But regardless of any potential mitigating circumstances, if Bottas cannot convert track position into victories then any lingering hope he has of staying in the title hunt will swiftly evaporate.
Assuming they haven’t already, given he’s not even third in the points at the moment and is behind McLaren’s Lando Norris.
Shovlin said Bottas’s race did not pose any unusual post-race performance analysis tasks. Portugal was a slightly bizarre weekend and a tricky challenge given the low-grip surface and tough wind conditions, so perhaps there are mitigating circumstances to Bottas not having the answer. And Mercedes may swiftly discover the cause of Bottas’s small but significant struggles.
“When we understand it we will be a bit wiser and we’ll know a bit more and it feeds into the following weekend just as that constant curve of improvement you try and sit on,” said Shovlin.
Achieving that will be determine whether Bottas is able to convert these rare chances to intervene in the Hamilton-Verstappen fight. It will have little to do with whether Wolff gets on the radio again in the future or not.