Valtteri Bottas has never headed into a Formula 1 season with such low expectations in terms of potential results. Even in his rookie year back in 2013, during which he scored points only once in the ineffective Williams-Renault FW35, he was driving for a team that had been genuinely quick the previous season.
For someone who has headed into each of his 101 races over the past five years knowing he had a genuine shot at victory with Mercedes – and had pretentions of challenging for the title every year – driving for Sauber-run Alfa Romeo represents a dramatic reduction of status. Yet the early signs are that he’s relishing the challenge.
It’s always difficult to be sure what motivates a driver. Sometimes even they don’t really know. But Bottas genuinely appears engaged in the project he has joined. At 32, he has a decent shelf-life as an F1 driver remaining, and a long-term deal that should keep him at Alfa Romeo until the end of 2024. He’s also going into it with his eyes open, driving for a team that has finished eighth or worse in the championship every year since the V6 turbo hybrid era started in 2014.
Bottas emphasized repeatedly the desire for a multi-year deal and has claimed he told Toto Wolff that he had no interest in another single-year extension to his stint with Mercedes. George Russell’s inexorable rise was a bigger part in his departure from the Silver Arrows, but it reflects what’s really important for Bottas. After five seasons as Hamilton’s reluctant wingman – a word Bottas has railed against in the past, but one accurately reflecting his status with Mercedes – he will be the focal point at Alfa Romeo. It will be ‘his’ team in a way Mercedes, which only ever confirmed his place one year at a time, never was.
It’s easy to feel sympathy for Bottas given the situation he was in at Mercedes, but ultimately he was cast as the number two because he was the lesser driver. There’s no disgrace in that given his team-mate was an all-time great in Lewis Hamilton, and Bottas is the latest in a long line of very good drivers made to look mediocre by being judged against an almost impossibly high standard. While there were occasions when he had to play the team game, most notably at Sochi in 2018 where he was on course for victory but had to let Hamilton by, it didn’t happen often.
As Bottas himself put it last year, “on my best days, whether it’s a race or qualifying, I’m unbeatable. But unfortunately, I don’t always have the best days.” It’s an accurate description, one applying to many of the great number two drivers. Only one driver has been in the ‘other’ car in a team for more drivers’ championship victories than Bottas: Rubens Barrichello. Both are in the group of those who could be brilliant on their day and who had superb careers, but who weren’t always as appreciated as they should have been. Names like David Coulthard, Mark Webber, Riccardo Patrese and Gerhard Berger also spring to mind.
Bottas is unquestionably quick and his qualifying record compared to Hamilton, statistically F1’s greatest qualifier, was impressive. In equal machinery, he beat Hamilton 30% of the time on Saturdays, a record worthy of respect. He was less commanding in the races, primarily because he lacked Hamilton’s adaptability. Tire management could be a weakness, although he improved on this over the years, and if conditions became more unpredictable, such as when windy, he could struggle. But again, he’s being measured against an all-time great there. Transpose his performance level into a midfield team, and he would doubtless have been given more credit.
What Bottas did show at Mercedes was a grim determination, coming back every season resolved to fight for the championship. This constant desire for improvement ensured he did keep chipping away and sharpening his skills. He showed tremendous fortitude in repeatedly picking himself up after being crushed by Hamilton time and time again, and it was only towards the end of his Mercedes spell that his robustness appeared to fade. But encouragingly, once his Alfa Romeo deal was signed and announced, his performances picked up again.
At Monza last year, the race after the move became public, he produced a dominant performance level throughout the weekend, setting the pace in qualifying, winning the sprint race and then, thanks to a back of the grid penalty triggered by an engine change, charging through to third. The trouble with your unbeatable days not coming around too often is sometimes they run into circumstances that prevent you making the most of them.
After five years of this, it’s no surprise Bottas is reveling in being the main man at Alfa Romeo. Some might argue that he’s simply a busted flush taking one last big payday after having realized he’s failed in his ambition of becoming world champion. Some of the facts fit, especially given Alfa Romeo is unlikely to give him the machinery to win races anytime soon. But that’s to ignore two factors.
The first was out of Bottas’s control, because he was out of synch with the driver market. For 2021, there were plenty of moves and in 2023 there is the potential for similar volatility – but 2022 is a year of relative stability with 16 out of 20 seats unchanged. The only big move was the one Bottas was involved in, with Russell taking his seat meaning there was no opportunity to move to a more obviously upwardly mobile midfield team even though, were there vacancies, there would have been interest in his services.
The second is that the determination to do more in F1 is still there. It’s far easier for those who have done it all in F1, those who have won the championship, to walk away and do something else. Some of those in the bracket of those who won races but not the title retain their motivation even after they fall off the grid. Take Barrichello, who actively chased a return to F1 for several years after losing his Williams drive at the end of 2011, and was even willing to countenance driving for tailender Caterham in a deal that never was.
Bottas can take some inspiration from his former Williams teammate Felipe Massa. The Brazilian was dropped by Ferrari, which won races in each of his eight seasons there, and picked up by Williams for 2014 after it finished ninth in the championship. Massa joined Williams after four years as emphatically Fernando Alonso’s number two at Ferrari, albeit with his stock lower than Bottas’s currently is. But Massa performed well at Williams, spending four seasons there – one of those a bonus year after coming back from retirement when Bottas was signed by Mercedes – and made a valuable contribution.
For Alfa Romeo, there’s tremendous value in having a driver with significant experience running at the front. Bottas knows Mercedes inside out, and therefore understands the working practices and culture of F1’s pre-eminent team of recent times. This knowledge will help Alfa Romeo to understand deficiencies that might otherwise have seemed invisible. Aston Martin has benefited from this with Sebastian Vettel joining last year. Senior personnel speak highly of his impact independent of his contribution behind the wheel.
Alfa Romeo has a long way to go. Technical director Jan Monchaux sees 2022 as a zero point where it finally sheds the baked-in disadvantages caused by its financial problems in the build-up to the 2017 regulation changes, when the wider and higher downforce cars were introduced. It has had stable financial backing since being taken over in mid-2016 – a deal that was too late to permit a good start in 2017. It also has decent facilities and some high-quality personnel, as well as the cash to operate at or close to the cost cap. It’ll be a long haul, but Bottas is ready for that – even though, like so many before him, he might have underestimated just how long it will take.
If Bottas didn’t realize the scale of the challenge when he put pen to paper on the contract, he certainly will now. He’s spent time at the Hinwil factory and in the simulator (in fact, he drove the simulator for the first time during last season) and also got behind the wheel of the Alfa Romeo mule – a modified 2019 car used for tire testing – in Abu Dhabi last year.
It won’t be until the season starts that Bottas learns some of the other limitations compared to Mercedes. But for Bottas, what matters is this is his team. He goes from being a solid backup at Mercedes to the focal point at Alfa Romeo, and the chance to contribute to such a project. It’ll be tough, but in a different way to what he experienced at Mercedes. For a while, the fact he’s not being outperformed by Hamilton most of the time will be enough of a change to keep him in a good place mentally.
The big question is how he deals with it in the long term, which is also dependent on how competitive Alfa Romeo is. But it would require a big step to be even a consistent Q3 contender, and spending most of his time in the lower midfield would also be difficult to take for Bottas. While he knows what it’s like to toil in an uncompetitive car in F1, that was before he tasted life at the front.
The environment should ensure that, provided progress is being made, he can continue to revel in the challenge. After all, Alfa Romeo wasn’t delighted with the ability of its previous line-up, Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen, to extract the potential of the car. In Bottas it has a driver capable of producing Hamilton-like performances at least occasionally.
However it plays out, expect Bottas to be one of the surprise, if low profile, stars of the current season. His Mercedes stint proved conclusively he is not in Hamilton’s class but, as he will likely show now he’s out of the shadow of a legend, it doesn’t mean he isn’t a seriously high-class grand prix driver.