Formula 1 drivers spend years toiling to get into a front-running grand prix team, with the vast majority never getting that far. It’s all a question of when the inexorable rise levels out, which is eventually followed by the moment that the career takes a downturn, often for good. This is the situation that Valtteri Bottas could be facing in 2021.
This is his fifth year as a Mercedes driver, with his longevity as Lewis Hamilton’s ‘wingman’ – and the fact he’s played his part in four constructors’ championship victories – testament to his value. But with Mercedes-contracted Williams driver George Russell potentially close to deposing him from the Silver Arrows line-up, Bottas could be facing a career crossroads.
The timing is unfortunate for Bottas. A driver with half-a-decade of service in F1’s preeminent team, one with nine grand prix victories, 17 pole positions and vast experience of the way Mercedes operates will inevitably be in demand. But if he is on the market for 2022, barring a shock move to Red Bull, his choices appear to be Williams or Alfa Romeo.
Usually a driver of Bottas’s experience and proven quality might expect to wash up at an upwardly-mobile midfield team: Alpine for example. These avenues have been closed off, with driver line-ups locked in. So if Bottas is out of a Mercedes drive, he’s light of options.
You wouldn’t blame Bottas for wanting to turn his back on F1. After all, he’s used to fighting up front and going into the season with aspirations – albeit ones universally thwarted – of challenging for the world championship. To be rejected and have to refocus your sights on possibly having to battle even to progress to Q2 would be difficult.
But Bottas only turns 32 later this month, meaning he can and should have plenty more years in F1 left in him. He’s also a robust character mentally, one whom you would imagine would be fired up to prove Mercedes wrong and show his worth elsewhere. What’s more, from a more mercenary perspective, he would also be able to command a very healthy salary.
Granted, doing so in a strong midfield team would appeal more, but given the transformation F1 is undergoing in cost cap era and with new regulations next year, this is as good a time as ever to move to a struggling team – provided it is one with potential.
On paper, Williams seems the preferable option. Since being bought by New York investment company Dorilton Capital last August, it has benefited from a significant cash influx. This means the team is, according to Williams CEO Jost Capito, no longer dependent on drivers to bring cash, and is also benefiting from a refresh of its facilities.
The impact of this should not be underestimated, as Williams’s slide down the grid to the point where it finished last in the constructors’ championship from 2018-2021 coincided with ever-tightening budgets and the team effectively running out of credit. While Dorilton is not taking a money-no-object approach with the emphasis instead on sustained, steady investment, it means Williams is now on an even keel and with the resources to climb the grid.
In Capito and technical director Francois-Xavier Demaison it has two key architects of Volkswagen’s domination of the World Rally Championship in the key positions, and despite its struggles, also has the quality staff and facilities to back that up. Add to that some promising qualifying performances this season for Russell, who has escaped Q1 10 times out of 11 and twice made it to Q3, and it confirms that Williams has pulled out of its recent nose-dive
But there’s a potential downside for Bottas, albeit one often presented as a positive – he has been there before. First signed as a test driver ahead of 2010, he raced for Williams from 2013 to 2016 before Mercedes paid £10 million to trigger his release to replace the retiring Rosberg for ’17. While he performed well for Williams, it might be that Bottas doesn’t like the idea of emphasizing how regressive a step a move down the grid is by going back to his old team.
Perhaps this is why he has been extensively linked to Sauber-run Alfa Romeo. It’s a team that appears to have stagnated of late and has been stuck in the bottom three of the constructors’ championship throughout the V6 turbo hybrid era. Points have been increasingly hard to come by with just 11 scored in the past season-and-a-half, but it’s also a team with genuine potential.
Like Williams, it struggled with under-investment under the previous ownership and has been working to rebuild. Team principal Frederic Vasseur has often called it a “young” team, which seems an odd claim given it has been in F1 since 1993 but at heart he has a point. It’s a team rebuilding, with new infrastructure projects like the driver-in-loop simulator it acquired in 2019 finally on the brink of making an active contribution to the development of the 2022 car.
But both are what’s best described as “project” teams in the sense that they must be approached with a long-term view. Williams and Alfa Romeo, barring some desperately unlikely turn of events, will not be up front in 2022 despite the opportunity presented by the new rules even though they both have the potential to get better results than in recent seasons. So if Bottas is to move to one of them, it would have to be with a view to helping develop the teams to the point where wins might perhaps be achievable down the line.
Such a scenario will be demanding for Bottas. While for a driver still on the way up it’s natural to pour their heart and soul into a struggling team, it is more demanding for one who has grown used to life at the front. But there are factors that can also reinvigorate a driver, for Bottas would go from wingman to main man thanks to his prodigious experience.
He would certainly be prized by either Williams or Alfa Romeo. From a pace perspective, a driver who has outqualified Hamilton one-third of the time in equal machinery can only help them in their struggle towards the front. And while Bottas’s Sunday weaknesses have been laid bare alongside Hamilton, that’s the case with most drivers. He’s far from the first very good F1 driver to be made to look bad alongside an all-time great.
There’s also the intangible element of what he can bring to a team. He knows how Mercedes works inside out, so can bring plenty of that knowledge and expertise. This can be particularly valuable to a team that is rebuilding, and there are plenty of examples of rejected top team drivers bring such experience to emerging teams.
At Williams, Felipe Massa played a crucial role in its mini-revival at the start of the V6 turbo hybrid era. But perhaps the best example is that of the four years David Coulthard spent with Red Bull from 2005-2008.
Coulthard was a 13-times grand prix winner with a decade driving for top teams, initially at Williams, then for eight seasons at McLaren. Like Bottas, he showed himself to be superb on his day, but not able to live with superstars like Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen on a consistent basis. But once sold on the Red Bull project – and it’s worth noting that he had been courted by the Jaguar team before it was taken over and had no interest in moving – he gave it his all and is credited as having played a key role in the team’s emergence as a race winning force.
It was Coulthard who gave Red Bull immediate respectability with fourth place in its first race in Melbourne 2005, and whose knowledge and experience helped to steer the ambitious and rapidly-expanding organization. That is proof of the value of a top-team reject to an upwardly mobile team.
The key is that he was energized by the challenge and wasn’t motivated by hanging around in F1 simply through either a lack of imagination or desire to earn a few more million. Only Bottas will know what drives him should he face such a scenario, and it will likely play a key part in whether he takes on the challenge and makes a success of it.
As the example of Coulthard shows, often the top-team drop-out isn’t the one to benefit from the toil. Instead, it was Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber who reaped the rewards when Red Bull started winning. But Coulthard remains on Red Bull’s books as an ambassador to this day, and can take enormous satisfaction from the valuable role he played in Red Bull establishing itself as an F1 powerhouse.
Most importantly, Bottas is a driver with a huge amount to offer. While it’s tempting to dismiss anyone who has had a shot at the front and been found wanting, the challenge of taking on a relentless performer like Hamilton is enormous.
A refreshed Bottas, reveling in the challenge of helping to revive a struggling team and motivated to show he still has plenty to offer and achieve in F1, would be an outstanding signing.
The question is whether Bottas is up for the challenge, and who can convince him to sign on the dotted line. Assuming, of course, Mercedes doesn’t decide to kick this particular can down the road on Bottas’s behalf and hang onto him for yet another season.