“My feeling was that we were more passive than aggressive today, for me – which is the opposite to what we should have been.”
The Bahrain Grand Prix was hardly a high-angst Mercedes/Valtteri Bottas flashpoint, just another one of those races where things didn’t work out as he hoped and he expressed some mild disgruntlement that probably quickly eased once he fully understood the team’s plan.
The problem for Bottas is that Mercedes was being aggressive when it swiftly brought him in for his second Sakhir pitstop rather than letting him run long as he wished. But the focus of the aggression was team-mate Lewis Hamilton’s strategy, with Bottas being used to try to lure Max Verstappen into an earlier stop to make him less of a threat to Hamilton. A problematic wheel change that meant it was a wasted effort anyway.
Bottas certainly isn’t – and hasn’t ever – been badly treated by Mercedes. It’s given him equal chances to Hamilton whenever feasible, while prioritising winning championships with the driver most likely to do so. Running longer in Bahrain might have increased Bottas’s low percentage chance of personally winning the race but to the detriment of the chances of the Mercedes driver actually leading the race at the time.
Doing the ‘opposite’, as Bottas describes it, has paid off for him in the past. His brilliant Suzuka and Austin 2019 wins were set up by diverging from Hamilton strategically and unleashing great raw pace. You’re unlikely to beat Hamilton in the same car by doing exactly the same as him and hoping you’ll do it better, after all.
But as uncomfortable as Bottas has always been with his implied ‘wingman’ role, the situation Mercedes finds itself in for 2021 – with Red Bull and Verstappen at least as fast and benefitting from a competitive second driver with no realistic title ambitions of his own right now – means Mercedes really doesn’t need its drivers to be focusing on overcoming each other and dropping points into Red Bull’s lap. And given the strong evidence that Hamilton is still Mercedes’ best title hope, that means Bottas’s personal ambitions have to be much lower priority. In a year when, yet again, he’s fighting for his future at the team.
So maybe that’s not the fight he should be having. Maybe ‘doing the opposite’ means starting afresh somewhere else. Be thankful for the opportunity of five years with F1’s greatest ever team and all the wins and valuable experience gained from it (as Mercedes will be so thankful for how Bottas changed its atmosphere and helped Hamilton’s personal growth after the Nico Rosberg rivalry years), but focus not on clinging on for another one-year Mercedes contract in 2022 but on re-establishing himself elsewhere next season.
After all, even if Hamilton steps out of the cockpit after 2021, Bottas risks just being Mercedes’ continuity candidate alongside its next talisman – whether that’s a promoted George Russell or it’s pulled off that swoop for Verstappen that Christian Horner keeps teasing. Mercedes has had five years of seeing Bottas as its ‘not quite wingman, but…’. It knows what he’s capable of and that it’s a bit less than Hamilton is capable of. It’s hard to imagine the mental transition needed on both sides for Bottas to become an unequivocal post-Hamilton Mercedes team leader.
That mental element is important too, as Bottas is admirably open about the psychological challenges of being an F1 driver and being teamed with the era’s greatest, and his constant efforts to deal with that in a way that also advances his own prospects of success. But every plan of revitalising himself over the winter, prioritising a ‘happy head’, aiming to be more selfish or have more team support seems to have the same outcome because nothing will change the fundamental fact of Hamilton being just a slightly better driver with an enormous record of success and a longer-established relationship with the team.
Bottas could have ignored Mercedes’ pit calls and done his own thing in Bahrain. That would’ve been disastrous for the relationship and he’s ultimately far too sensible to have done it.
But moving elsewhere, and accepting that he won’t have as competitive a car as a result but might achieve more personal success on a relative level, is a more sensible ‘selfish’ move. And Bottas is a very employable target for the rest of the grid. He’s a strong match for Hamilton in qualifying, just often less effective over a race distance. That’s still better than many others in the F1 field. And he comes with knowledge of Mercedes’ technology and its brilliant way of running a team.
Until half a year ago, returning to Williams would’ve seemed like a huge step down for Bottas
F1 doesn’t offer great precedents for ’emancipated number two thrives as team leader elsewhere’ tales. Rubens Barrichello had high hopes for life at Honda after leaving his role as Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari understudy, but Honda was already Jenson Button’s town. Barrichello’s Ferrari predecessor Eddie Irvine’s equivalent move to lead Jaguar was tarnished by Jaguar being a shambles. Riccardo Patrese found Michael Schumacher at Benetton tougher than Nigel Mansell at Williams.
So ideally for Bottas to thrive his next destination should be a non-shambolic team that doesn’t already have its own established superstar or rising superstar.
Given Bottas/Mercedes’ strong relationship, you have to consider the other Mercedes-powered teams as sensible destinations. McLaren against Lando Norris or Daniel Ricciardo probably wouldn’t be the ideal solution. Aston Martin could be a great fit for both parties, though something dramatic would have to happen for a quick vacancy to emerge there given Lance Stroll’s family ties and the emphasis the team has put on the value of signing Sebastian Vettel. Both have relative job security even if they underperform.
Until half a year ago, returning to Williams would’ve seemed like a huge step down for Bottas. But with Dorilton’s investment, new management and the prospect of stronger Mercedes technology ties too, there’s a real chance of it becoming a competitive ‘class B’ contender again. Bottas played a very big part in the last relative glory days of Williams family ownership, there would be something romantic about him leading its charge forward in its new era and showing F1 what he’s really, really capable of in the process.
If Bottas wants to be aggressive, not passive, then he needs to put himself first in his 2022 seat choice and make where he next races all about him. Slightly perversely, that probably means leaving F1’s greatest team and all the benefits it offers, and building somewhere else around him.