He secured his first win in 2017 in superb fashion in Russia. He followed that up with similarly brilliant drives to win in Austria and Abu Dhabi, yet Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas rarely being spoken about when it comes to the 2018 Formula 1 championship contenders. Why is this? And how can he secure his maiden championship ahead of the likes of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen?
Bottas was given a seemingly impossible task in 2017 – replacing the outgoing world champion. He was given very little preparation time to replace 2016 champion Nico Rosberg, but he made a solid if unspectacular effort in doing so. During their time as team-mates, Lewis Hamilton and Rosberg were separated by 18, 67 (affected by double points), 59 and five points. The latter of those were in Rosberg’s favour, but the other three seasons were in the favour of the now-four-time champion. In their one season to date, Bottas trailed Hamilton by 58 points – a very similar amount to Hamilton and Rosberg in 2015. It was a solid effort, and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was happy to retain the Finnish driver for 2018, but only 2018 as it stands.
However, points do not always tell the full story. Hamilton soundly beat his team-mate last year, and absolutely thrashed him in the second half of the year. A similar performance in 2018 may not result in another one year contract extension, with the likes of Ricciardo, Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso all potentially available. So Bottas enters the year as a man very much under pressure. Throughout his career, this has rarely startled him, so this is likely to be a challenge he will relish.
If fears that Mercedes has the dominant package are realised, then it may well be a case of what became the norm in the early V6 turbocharged hybrid era of Formula 1 – domination by one team. This would be the easiest scenario for a driver to secure a championship. However, Bottas would have to beat the man on the other side of the garage to do so. That would not be an easy task.
Hamilton, in a post-Rosberg era is in the form of his career. His fourth championship triumph was his finest yet, and there’s little reason to doubt that he can carry that form into 2018. Already one of the most decorated drivers of all time and an undisputed all-time great, Hamilton’s team-mate is in a difficult position already. However, no driver is invincible, regardless of how many championships or race wins he or she may have. Hamilton is no exception, and he can be beaten.
To do that, Bottas must look to some of Hamilton’s weaker seasons, and hope that Hamilton has one of those poor periods. 2011 was by no means a strong season for Hamilton, and while he still outperformed his team-mate in 2016, it was not a great season either. But even with that, Bottas must be ready to pounce as Jenson Button and Rosberg did. Combined with having had sufficient preparation time to do battle and having input in the car’s development, a significant step in performance is definitely expected. Bottas also has the advantage of beating Hamilton fair and square in the most recent race at Abu Dhabi, although that momentum can only carry him so far.
There is more than one way to beat a team-mate to a title, and one method is by playing the numbers game. Being quicker does not always result in a championship – Gilles Villeneuve in 1979, Alain Prost in 1984, Ayrton Senna in 1989 and Hamilton in 2016 are all fine examples of drivers losing out despite outperforming their team-mates. Should Bottas find that he is simply slower than Hamilton in a situation where the car is the absolute monster some fear it is, then he should look to trying to capitalise where Hamilton has looked weak before or find a new weakness. His starts were never a strong point, and he can be prone to the odd weekend where he simply seems lost at sea. That, combined with a bit of reliability trouble (which, with three power units per driver this season almost seems a certain rather than a possibility), may just allow Bottas to edge his illustrious team-mate to an unlikely maiden title.
In a different scenario – one where Mercedes does not have the all-conquering car many dread, it may provide a bit more difficult for the Finn to come out on top. For all the weakness he showed in 2017, Sebastian Vettel is still a force to be reckoned with in any championship campaign if the car is there or thereabouts. Beating the driver on the other side of the garage is only the first objective in a title run, beating somebody else is a completely different objective, and not necessarily one that is easier.
That is before bringing in arguably the strongest driver pairing on the grid into the equation – Ricciardo and Verstappen. Both are ready to fight for a championship, and both are already worthy of more than the five and three grand prix victories they have respectively. Red Bull has started the season stronger than in recent years, and by the end of the year it may have a very potent machine in its disposal. Bottas and Ricciardo may just end up re-enacting the 2008 Formula Renault 2.0 championship battle, which was fought out between themselves.
When talking about the best drivers on the grid, Bottas is rarely mentioned as one of the absolute best. Perhaps 2018 is his breakthrough year. If he is to keep one of the most coveted seats in all of motorsport, it might just need to be.