Why Valtteri Bottas is doing just fine at Mercedes

F1

There hasn't really been a title fight between Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton, but that might not matter in terms of his future at Mercedes

Valtteri Bottas, 2021 Spanish GP

Bottas's Mercedes future isn't confirmed but does the team really need to change its line-up?

DPPI

If there were ever a single race that painted the Mercedes team harmony picture accurately, the 2021 Spanish Grand Prix was the race to do so most aptly.

He wasn’t the driver stealing the headlines with a blistering pole lap, a heroic overtake or eventual race win but Valtteri Bottas came home in third and added a solid haul of points to the Mercedes total.

Lewis Hamilton lapped up the praise for his third win of the season and Bottas didn’t run him or Max Verstappen close at any point, but that’s fine. In his role at Mercedes, he did the perfect job in relation to the bigger picture.

He hoovered up the best available points finish after his team-mate and made it difficult for Hamilton’s title rival on strategy. Not to mention he maintained his incredible record for Q3 appearances with an 83rd-successive Q3 runout.

“If I’m really honest, I feel we have the best line-up currently in terms of equilibrium”

By lining up in P3, Bottas gave himself and his team the best possible chance of victory having missed out on the front row. He was right there as a thorn in the side of Red Bull, exactly where he’s meant to be.

His being a nuisance didn’t stop there either. While it didn’t come off in Spain, Bottas was able to deprive Verstappen of the additional point for fastest lap in Portugal. With how close the season has been so far, who knows how vital that could prove.

Contrast the Finn’s effort with that of Sergio Perez, the other key piece of the 2021 title puzzle and it puts it into better context. The Mexican said he was suffering from a shoulder problem on Saturday that further hurt his performance but he’s been further away from his team-mate’s pace.

Valtteri Bottas, 2021 Emilia Romagna GP

Bottas has been on the podium in each race he has finished this season while Perez hasn’t made it once

Grand Prix Photo

His poor starting position in Spain left his Red Bull team defenceless when Mercedes pulled the pin on a two-stop strategy. If Red Bull had fresh mediums for Verstappen to respond with, Bottas was within that crucial pit stop window anyway and would likely have proved a factor in the outcome of the race. Perez wasn’t.

The Mexican has been 0.320sec off of his team-mate on a Saturday on average so far this season, including a Q2 knock-out in Bahrain as he tries to get to grips with a car he’s driven in anger just four times so far. Bottas has been 0.203sec off of Hamilton but has taken pole position on one of those occasions. A 0.2sec gap going up against the most successful qualifier in F1 history is hardly something worthy of criticism.

Mercedes has had ample opportunity to rethink its four-time championship-winning line-up with Bottas re-signing so many one-year deals, but it has stuck with the known quantity on the other side of the garage, something that Hamilton remarked in Spain has been an important factor in his and the team’s success.

“I think he’s been an amazing team-mate, as I’ve always said,” Hamilton explained pre-race in Barcelona.

Related article

“If I’m really honest, I feel 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.”

Perhaps that’s why Red Bull finds itself at such a disadvantage now with its unique chopping-and-changing mantra.

Mercedes enjoyed such an advantage in the early years of the turbo-hybrid era that even the combustible Hamilton/Nico Rosberg combo didn’t prevent the Three-Pointed Star from sweeping both titles between 2014 and ’16.

Ferrari and Red Bull have posed a greater threat since then but the Hamilton/Bottas line-up has delivered a further four successive title sweeps, set numerous team records and scored plenty of wins and podiums along the way.

Is the Finn a world championship-calibre driver? On the evidence we’ve accumulated since he started out in Formula 1 racing full-time at Williams in 2013, it’s unlikely. He has shown bright sparks and has kept pace with the greatest qualifier in F1 history, out-qualifying him on occasion. But in terms of being a title-winner, he just isn’t quite there.

Currently, Bottas has nine race victories to his name which puts him ahead of the likes of Gilles Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya. Now Bottas certainly doesn’t have quite the same attention-demanding style nor the fiesty personality that duo had respectively, but that makes little to no difference whatsoever to his employers. In fact, it’s probably to his benefit.

Valtteri Bottas, 2021 Portuguese GP

Bottas and Hamilton say they have a positive working relationship as team-mates

Grand Prix Photo

The ‘Bottas 2.0’ persona and his “To whom it may concern, f*** you” addressing of critics are just false dawns as he is forced up against the greatest driver of his generation and the star of the next one.

We’ve heard a fired-up Bottas over team radio on a few occasions but that fire doesn’t burn long enough to explode into a title fight, not with Hamilton anyway. His boss Toto Wolff might be secretly glad that it doesn’t anyway.

Upsetting the balance is what might land Bottas in hot water.

Since joining in 2017, Bottas has stood on the podium at 47 out of the possible 79 races. His strike rate has remained relatively stable too at 65% in ’17; 38% in ’18 – (his worst season to date at Merc); 71.4 in ’19 and 64.7% last year.

Related article

If that podium rate slips, if Mercedes starts to collect fewer points and podiums he has racked up with often overlooked regularity, then it could cause one or two glances elsewhere.

The kind of tension he created on the pit wall with his stubbornness in not letting his team-mate go in Spain could be the type of reason he’s finally shown the silver door, even if he had every right to race Hamilton.

The George Russell question is an interesting one and it’s likely going to need answering with both Bottas and the British driver out of contract at the end of the season.

Last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix was the only real chance we’ve had to analyse their performances against one another, but even that has a fair few caveats. Russell couldn’t really fit into the W11 properly and Bottas’s race was destroyed the moment he left the pits with the same set of tyres he’d arrived on amid the Mercedes pitstop chaos.

Would Russell deliver the same consistency alongside Hamilton? He went wheel-to-wheel with Bottas earlier this year, a driver he afterwards deemed a team-mate by virtue of his Mercedes links, and caused a mighty shunt between the two of them, costing himself a great chance of his first Williams points finish.

Bottas has never been the best wheel-to-wheel racer but his consistency is what has mattered, and he brings his car home, usually on the podium, week in and week out.

Why would Mercedes need to worry about changing that yet?