The last few weeks have seen Valtteri Bottas’ future being discussed once again, with a few rumors circulating among certain media that the Finn has already been told he’s being replaced by George Russell next season.
Both Bottas and Russell rejected that claim, but it’s not a position the former is unfamiliar with. After joining Mercedes in 2017, he’s been faced with questions about his future at pretty much every turn because of the tendency to only be offered one-year extensions that don’t suggest the team has full faith in his abilities to be a part of the line-up over the longer term.
Perhaps it’s just being used as a way of motivating Bottas, ensuring he’s always fighting for his future and always subservient to the team’s requests, because he knows any dissent could spell the end of his time at Brackley. And if that’s the case, it has been working because it leads to a situation where he simply doesn’t get animated enough to make many people connect with him.
That can be summed up by Bottas’ radio message late in the French Grand Prix, when he had dropped to fourth and angrily said: “Why the f••• does nobody listen to me when I say it’s going to be a two-stopper? F•••ing hell.”
I live tweet during races, and simply posted that exact message. It has become the most liked tweet I’ve ever had, and that’s because it showed some emotion, some fight, something for fans to get behind or disagree with. Bottas was taking a stance.
And he so rarely does that. Even Toto Wolff afterwards admitted: “I loved it that he speaks his mind now, and doesn’t internalize.”
But in reality, I wonder if Wolff really does love it that Bottas delivered such an outburst, because it goes completely against the nature of the driver that fits into the Mercedes setup so well.
In many ways, Bottas is boring, and that’s why fans don’t warm to him so much. Most of the time, he’s plenty good enough to keep Mercedes happy and ensure the team wins titles, but not good enough to threaten Lewis Hamilton on a regular basis. And when they come up against each other on track, he always plays fair, but rarely hard.
Then when things go wrong, it’s not like Bottas to vocalize his frustrations. He’s good at being calm and composed, not criticizing the team or making a scene. It was the case in Imola, where he didn’t bite too hard at Russell’s reaction to their collision, and the same in Monaco when he retired from a certain second place after a wheel nut was machined onto the front axle.
“It was a big mistake by us, as a team, to learn from,” was about as animated as Bottas got with the media. “Either if it is human error or a technical issue, it doesn’t matter — we need to find the solution. If it’s a human error, we need to support the guy who did it, but we need to learn from that — that’s the main thing in my mind. And, at the same time, I’m super disappointed.”
It’s hardly badass, is it?
And that’s exactly why he has lasted at Mercedes for as long as he has. Bottas still wins a few races, picks up plenty of podiums and at times, shows incredible speed over one lap (don’t forget he’s up against the driver with the all-time pole position record in Formula 1). However, when things don’t go his way he just doesn’t create drama.
For those outside, those are all negatives. You want drama and entertainment. You want controversy and a bit of needle. You want to see drivers giving it their absolute all and then showing some emotion when it doesn’t pay off.
Bottas doesn’t lend himself towards that all too often, but 2021 is starting to feel like the season when that might change. Mercedes is clearly under pressure, and it’s not just from Max Verstappen. Sergio Perez’s presence has upped the stakes, making life difficult for the defending champions in France and ensuring Mercedes didn’t have the obvious strategic option available to it.
In the end, Bottas was sacrificed. Red Bull split its strategies with Verstappen going for the two-stopper and Perez running long in the first stint before committing to the one-stop. It wasn’t fully clear which would prove the right move, but by hedging its bets Red Bull had a back-up policy if Verstappen’s second stop from the lead didn’t pay out.
Bottas was clearly not going to catch and pass Hamilton given the fact he had stopped earlier than his teammate and was slipping slowly back, but Mercedes didn’t opt to follow suit when Verstappen stopped. It could have brought Bottas in, tried to put the pressure on Verstappen still and ensured that if the two-stop was going to work then it wouldn’t only be the championship leader trying it.
But by leaving Bottas out, he had track position and could offer some form of resistance that might slow Verstappen’s progress. He became the first line of defense for Hamilton rather than the second line of attack for Mercedes.
That explains why he was so angry over team radio, but also highlights his role within the team. It’s a fair argument that Mercedes weighed up its chances of winning and felt the one-stop with Bottas in Verstappen’s way was the best way to go, and on that basis it was being ruthlessly single-minded in its pursuit of a race win, regardless of the driver. Bottas gives the team confidence to do that because he will follow the order. Whether Hamilton would in the same situation is another debate…
Fans everywhere would probably like to see the former Williams driver go a bit more rogue, questioning more decisions, trying something different and basically standing up for himself a bit more against Mercedes if he feels he’s not getting the rub of the green. But the reality is that’s a recipe for disaster because if Bottas does that, he loses what makes him so attractive to Wolff and company.
If he starts to be less obedient and more outspoken, then perhaps the writing really is on the wall for Bottas. If he still frustrates you by not being enough of a bastard, then he’s probably doing his job.