Another race, another question over Valtteri Bottas’s hold on the second Mercedes seat – but this time, it’s very different.
With Lewis Hamilton self-isolating after testing positive for coronavirus, Mercedes protege and heir apparent George Russell occupies Hamilton’s seat for the Sakhir Grand Prix and picked up right where his compatriot left off by setting the pace on Friday.
Bottas managed to stake his claim on pole come Saturday, but Russell was still in touching distance behind. Our writers give their verdicts on how worried Bottas should be by the threat of Russell – or if the biggest threat to Bottas is Bottas himself.
Russell is a serious rival now
I had high hopes for Russell, not necessarily expectations. It’s impossible to judge how quickly a driver will adapt to such a scenario. But he’s such a classy, clever driver that it’s also impossible to be completely surprised by this. He just has it in him.
Short-term (as in, for victory on Sunday) yes, Bottas must be worried. His starts haven’t been brilliantly consistent this year and Russell’s got a great chance of grabbing track position.
Longer-term? Well, Mercedes and everybody involved has publicly said this is irrelevant long-term. But how can it be? This is the first firm evidence in F1 that Russell has the chops to cut it in an incredibly difficult, high-pressure environment.
The race is another kind of test entirely, but already Mercedes must be very confident that it has a legitimate third option for a race seat – now, not in the future. And while Bottas knows he is safe for 2021, he will also know that Russell is already staking a strong claim for a full-time Mercedes seat at some point. And that makes him a serious rival.
How can he not be worried?
Bottas needs not to be worried about Russell’s performance this weekend, but how can he fail to be. As ever, he’s only been confirmed for one more season and his direct rival for a seat in 2022 coming in and setting near as makes no difference the same time in qualifying would affect even the most robust character.
The key for Bottas is that during the race he sets any of these concerns aside. But that will be difficult. One of the great challenges in sport is to perform like there’s nothing on the line when the stakes are at their highest – that’s how you can deliver to your best. The trick is getting into that mindset.
Bottas is a fine driver with a wealth of experience at Mercedes and that’s what he must fall back on in the race situation. If he holds the lead and all goes well, he should be fine. But if things start to unravel even slightly, that’s when the concerns could complicate matters.
The bottom line is that Mercedes knows exactly what Bottas can do and now it’s seen a lot more of what Russell can do in a ‘live’ situation. That will change the equation when it comes to weighing up the choices for 2022. What Bottas needs to do is to ensure he wins the race and delivers his best form in the races between now and that final decision being made.
Russell is a looming threat
Absolutely, Bottas should be worried. His direct rival for a 2022 seat in the Mercedes has been in the car for two days and just qualified 0.026s behind him. Despite not fitting the car properly, despite what he describes as a very different driving style being necessary, despite just feeling his way on set up and systems. This was a quite magnificent effort. If he makes a better start tomorrow… then if Lewis Hamilton cannot take part in Abu Dhabi…
Bottas is probably relieved to have taken pole but there are many ways he might lose out to his team-mate yet.
All weekend Russell has struggled in Turn 1 and still he felt he hadn’t nailed it this time. This was where Bottas was taking a lot of time from him.
Yet still, he got within a couple of milliseconds. That in itself is ominous for Bottas, who will be in no doubt about the scale of the challenge that Russell represents.
Spare a thought for Williams
Yes, Russell could have found that other 0.026s to have been on pole position but he could also have put it in the wall trying. He’s driving a car with lots more grip than he is used to under braking and much higher mid-corner speeds, with the ability to go earlier and harder on the throttle. Coming to terms with it all in two days without making a mistake is commendable.
Qualifying is about wringing the car’s neck over one lap on new tyres, but the race is 87 laps of looking after the equipment including the Pirellis. Those extra speeds transfer through to the race, but achieving that whilst making sure the tyres don’t degrade too quickly will probably be his biggest challenge.
So far this weekend, there will be two happy campers, Mercedes and Russell. On the other side there will be three unhappy campers, Bottas because the new boy in the same car is very close and Lewis Hamilton because the new boy in his car is very close to Bottas. The third unhappy camper will be Williams. It uses the same engine package, it uses the same tyres so when your driver of last weekend can qualify second on the grid by only 0.026 seconds, I’m afraid 99.99% of the deficit is firmly pointing at the chassis.
The question that is always asked is ‘is it the driver or is it the car?’. It takes both, but on this occasion when it’s just about speed it definitely points towards the chassis having the upper hand.
Russell a Rosberg-like threat for Bottas
Putting Nico Rosberg’s performance against Lewis Hamilton purely down to data would be an injustice, but I think it’s fair to say he was less of a natural than Hamilton and made best use of the data available to succeed.
Russell was the best part of three tenths off Valtteri Bottas’s best lap in the FP2 qualifying simulations yesterday and yet, here he is, a paper-thin gap behind Bottas.
What’s to say what appeared to be a two-three tenth deficit in long run pace hasn’t also disappeared?
Russell has been forensic – a Rosberg sequel – in working with the team to reduce his areas of weakness. Turn 1 as an example remains an issue but it’s improving bit by bit.
Bottas has every reason to be worried by how quickly Russell has adapted and is able to use the tools available to erase the deficit.
Mercedes picked Russell for a reason
The element that Bottas needed to be worried about was that Mercedes picked Russell for this gig in the first place.
If it wanted to just fill the seat with an effective in-house option, it could’ve slotted Stoffel Vandoorne in.
It didn’t do that, because it wanted to use this opportunity “with a long-term perspective”, as Toto Wolff put it yesterday. In other words, to get a bit more evidence about if Russell could replace Bottas in the future. Or slot in if Hamilton walks, of course. But realistically the greater problem is Bottas, given his recent results.
If Russell had fallen in Q2, crashed in qualifying or been a substantial margin off Bottas, he could’ve done his future cause a lot of damage.
But anything better than that – and this was a lot better than that – was just going to be another step in a job interview process that began as soon as Wolff placed that 2am call to Russell the other morning.
The gap isn’t the worrying bit
Bottas got the job done, and ultimately that’s all that counts. But what might catch Mercedes’ eye more than the gap to Russell was that Bottas left the door open by failing to improve on his final Q3 run.
That was arguably the highest-pressure qualifying lap of Bottas’s career to date. He couldn’t lose to Russell today, everything was on the line, and he didn’t go faster.
The real test comes tomorrow though. Bottas and Russell have both looked stronger on Saturdays than Sundays this year, and if Bottas can make pretty comfortable work of keeping Russell and Verstappen at bay when it counts in the race, no-one will be looking too closely at the qualifying margin when reviewing the weekend.