Valtteri Bottas’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend was as bad as any he has experienced in his Mercedes Formula 1 career.
This was a completely anonymous weekend for him. Tenth in qualifying represented a relative peak given he suffered the ignominy of a point-less 12th-place finish on Sunday.
Unlike previous problematic weekends, this was a result that reflected Bottas’s performance. He never looked like scoring more than a couple of points at best and was baffled by his struggles from start to finish.
On Friday, Bottas suspected something was “fundamentally wrong”. On Saturday he said he’d crash if he pushed any harder. And on Sunday he reported “actually quite a similar feeling” to both days. “I’m confused,” he admitted. “It’s really weird.”
Bottas has suggested that a car fault would explain his problems away. He wants the team to have a good look at the car to see if there’s something wrong, whether that be a chassis or assembly problem.
“That would be the most logical reason if we could find something in the car,” he said.
“If not then the only thing must be the tyres. But we’re running the same tyre pressures and same tyre temperatures.”
Finding a car problem seems pretty unlikely. But establishing the cause is important, even if it is simply not getting the tyres into the same temperature window as Hamilton, because we’ve not seen Bottas be quite so ineffective in dry conditions before.
It’s a car that’s susceptible to tyre-related woe. Bottas found a way around that at the Monaco Grand Prix when Hamilton didn’t, this time the positions were reversed.
But it manifested itself far more damagingly for Bottas and the outcome was that at no point in the weekend did he look like anything other than a tail-end-of-the-midfield runner.
“Really the main issue was a lack of pace,” Bottas lamented. “Just not being quick enough.
“Quite early on in the race I could see that I just couldn’t match the cars ahead, especially when one of the Aston Martins was ahead of me. I just couldn’t keep up.”
Bottas will be hoping something significant is discovered, otherwise this was a weekend in which his main limitation was on show again: without a clear pace advantage, he gets stuck.
Bottas is an incredibly fast driver. And when he’s leading from the front, he can do the job. He’s won several races and on sheer pace alone he does merit a top drive in F1. But he’s shown himself to be a bit limited as a racing driver at times – at least at this level.
That’s something that the car can play a role in. If he was slower than the others in Baku then his chance of making progress is of course limited. One factor might have been running a slightly less skinny rear wing compared to Hamilton but Bottas suggested that will not be the cause as he suspected it was worth no more than a tenth of a second.
But the body language of his car when he’s in traffic is never that convincing, he never gives the impression he’s about to make something happen. Hamilton does make things happen in such circumstances more often than not, while Bottas tends to get stuck. It happened in Baku, where the efforts from race engineer Riccardo Musconi to encourage Bottas to make progress were futile.
A car problem, or even the mitigating factor of simply lacking pace because of tyre issues, might excuse his inability to move forwards. But it was frustrating to watch Bottas fall out of the points within half a lap of the mid-race safety car restart because bad positioning cost him places to Carlos Sainz Jr, Daniel Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso and even the Alfa Romeo of Kimi Raikkonen.
Bottas felt like a sitting duck at the restart but tyre temperatures weren’t really responsible for him letting himself get boxed in, and falling down the order as a result.
The only escape from just how bad this weekend was for Bottas would be the discovery of a fundamental problem: something that excuses him from failing to get the tyres working, failing to make passes in the race, and failing to defend his position.
If the cause is tyre-related, the next race in France should be much better. Paul Ricard has a lot of long and high-speed corners so generating heat in the front tyres will be a lot easier. If there is no underlying car fault and this is just about the dark art of tyre temperatures, Bottas will probably resume his usual position at the front.
In the meantime, he is left searching for answers.