Lewis Hamilton has mounted a strong defence of his Mercedes Formula 1 team-mate Valtteri Bottas, saying “people need to give him a break” amid suggestions the team could be set to drop Bottas in favour of Williams driver George Russell for next season or even during 2021.
While the rumoured change during this campaign is extremely unlikely given the disruption it would cause to Mercedes, there is a realistic chance Russell will take Bottas’s place next year.
“We’ve delivered time and time again over the years, and we continue to. People need to give him a break and just let him focus on doing what he’s doing” :: Lewis Hamilton
Bottas has been with the team since the start of 2017 after Mercedes paid Williams £10million to secure his services following the shock retirement of world champion Nico Rosberg.
But Bottas has only ever been confirmed for one season at a time and is position with the team is therefore not set for 2022.
Ever since Russell came close to winning the Sakhir Grand Prix on his one-off appearance as Hamilton’s stand-in last year, his case for a 2022 Mercedes seat has been compelling.
Despite this, Hamilton defended Bottas’s contribution to the success of Mercedes, arguing that their combination represents the strongest driver line-up in F1.
“From what I’ve experienced from the relationship I have with Valtteri, he’s been an amazing team-mate – as I’ve always said,” said Hamilton when asked if Mercedes would be stronger if it changed its line-up next year to bring in Russell, or if it kept faith with Bottas.
“And if I’m really honest, I feel like we have the best line-up currently in terms of deliverables, in terms of the equilibrium that’s within our team and the general knowledge in terms of moving our car forwards.
“OK, at some stage it’s going to shift, it’s going to change. I’m not going to be here forever, Valtteri won’t be here forever, but right now I think we’ve delivered time and time again over the years, and we continue to.
“Valtteri just qualified on pole for the last race. It’s only the fourth race [of 2021], I think people need to give him a break and just let him focus on doing what he’s doing.”
Bottas is now in his fifth season with Mercedes, having taken nine wins and 17 pole positions for the team as well as finishing as runner-up in the drivers’ championship twice. He has also made an important contribution to its domination of the constructors’ championship.
But he has had a mixed start to this season, with third-place finishes in Bahrain and Portugal and a retirement at Imola after the controversial accident with Russell while running ninth.
“There’s only one team that does that kind of thing in F1, and we’re not that. I know how things are and there’s always bullshit around” :: Valtteri Bottas
The 31-year-old has strongly dismissed the suggestions he could be replaced during this season.
“No, because I know that I’m not going to be replaced in the middle of the season as the team wouldn’t do that,” said Bottas when asked about the possibility.
“I have a contract for this year and I think there’s only one team that does that kind of thing in F1, and we’re not that.
“So no pressure from my side. I know how things are and there’s always bullshit around, that’s part of the sport.”
Bottas remains determined to secure his place at the team for another season. Despite his up-and-down start to 2021, he’s hopeful that being able to measure his performances not only against Hamilton, but also in the close competition from the Red Bull drivers, will make the quality of his driving more visible.
There is certainly increased opportunity for him to shine in this regard, although it can have an impact for better or worse.
His performance in Portugal was a mixed bag, as while he took pole position and hindered Verstappen in the race – as well as beating Sergio Perez – he ultimately lost second place.
“If we were a clear step ahead, the gap between the drivers could be big and you could still do great results,” said Bottas when asked by The Race if the battle with Red Bull offers him a chance to show his qualities.
“But this year, obviously it’s really, really clear. If you’re lacking a bit of pace, you can easily drop one or two places and I think that’s how it should be.
“So indeed, if I aim to do my job as well as I can, hopefully it will be very visible, and the talking will stop pretty quickly. So I agree, I think that’s a good thing.”
Bottas’s resolve to challenge for the world championship, something he has yet to do in his time with Mercedes, remains unshaken. While he did finish second in 2019 and ’20, Hamilton clinched the championship with two races to spare on both occasions and there was no real threat from his team-mate.
He also dismissed fears that he might be given team orders to help Hamilton in his battle with Verstappen, stressing it’s too early in the season for this.
“There’s still 20 races to go, which is a huge amount of points and I’m definitely not giving up on the goal for this year,” said Bottas.
“I always believe that hard work will pay off so I’ll keep working hard and keep believing. I know that the results will come and it will pay off.
“And about any team orders, I’m not worried, to be honest.. I know there’s a bit of a gap now but it’s super early days. For me, there’s no point starting to think about that.”
While winning the world championship would make Bottas’s claim to a Mercedes seat in 2022 rock-solid, history and the season so far means that is highly unlikely.
His best chance of retaining the seat is to take points off both Red Bull drivers and be – to use a word he once said “hurts” when team principal Toto Wolff used it to describe him – the best possible ‘wingman’ for Hamilton.
To do that, Bottas needs to maintain the attitude that he can be world champion in order to keep up the motivation to pursue every iota of performance.
A mid-season driver change would be illogical for Mercedes as the transition period would weaken what Hamilton points out has been an effective partnership.
But Bottas is facing a very tough challenge to hold onto the drive next season and he will be feeling the pressure of his future being at stake, as it has been so often in recent years.
Asked if he will be at Mercedes next season, Bottas replied: “I don’t know. At this point, it’s early days, I haven’t thought about next year.
“My full focus is on here and now because that’s all that matters and that will normally bring a good future.
“So I have no idea and at the moment I don’t care, I’m just focusing on this year and putting every single thought and every single bit of energy I have into that.”