When Nico Rosberg won the world championship in Abu Dhabi last November, media and fans alike began to brace themselves for another fiery encounter between the German and childhood friend and teammate, Lewis Hamilton. However, Rosberg’s announcement that he was retiring, just days after sealing his maiden title, sent shockwaves not only through the paddock, but also through the sporting world. It ignited a tirade of questions about why Nico had retired and what made him make such a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction. But one question dominated the headlines; just who would replace him at Mercedes for 2017?
Speculation started within the hour after Rosberg revealed he was leaving the sport. Who is good enough for Mercedes? Can anyone match Hamilton? How much will it cost? F1’s ‘silly season’ had started a good seven months early.
Reports that Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was a target for Mercedes were quashed as he was locked into a deal with the Milton Keynes outfit. Sebastian Vettel wasn’t about to leave Ferrari. And then there was Fernando Alonso. As reports suggested, Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes motorsport did speak to the two- time world champion, who is widely regarded as the best driver on the grid. However, the cost to buy the Spaniard out of his current McLaren contract (which expires at the end of the year), was just too great. But, Toto Wolff did have another ace up his sleeve, a young Finnish driver by the name of Valtteri Bottas.
Wolff had previously been involved in Bottas’ career on the management side and played a key role in securing the Finn’s driver at Williams in 2013. He knew he could trust Bottas, off the track and certainly on it as well. Bottas impressed in the four years he spent with Grove outfit, securing six podiums in his second full season, including a third-place finish at the Austrian GP in 2014, a track he would come to love in future years. Overall, he took nine podiums in four seasons, and this, coupled with his consistency and on occasions frightening pace in qualifying was enough to convince the Mercedes hierarchy. Subsequently, on 16th January 2017, Valtteri Bottas became a Mercedes driver.
The season so far.
Like with any new appointment, in any discipline of life, it’s fair to say there was mixed opinion. Some suggested it was a ‘do or die’ move for Bottas, implying that if he couldn’t meet Mercedes’ requirements, he could find himself without a drive altogether. Others were more optimistic, none more so than Wolff. “I think Valtteri fits very well in our team, as a driver he’s very fast, and he has also the heart in the right place,” the Austrian said of Bottas’ appointment. Even the driver himself seemed confident he could perform and work well alongside his three-time world champion team-mate Lewis Hamilton. “I think with Lewis we are going to be a strong pair together. I really respect him as a driver and a person.” This view has certainly been shared in the paddock as the season has progressed.
It was a fairly controlled and mediated start to life at Mercedes for Bottas, reflecting his personality to an extent. After qualifying third, three tenths off Hamilton, Bottas drove largely untroubled to a solid third spot and his first podium for the Brackley team. A decent enough start, however testing races in China and Bahrain began to put some pressure on the Finn. A spin under the safety car in Shanghai, which visibly angered Wolff, and a tyre pressure issue in the Middle East despite claiming his first pole position in F1, meant he had still yet to finish in the top two. Questions were already being asked about whether he would become the second driver to Hamilton this early in the season, as it appeared the Brit and Vettel were in a two -horse race for the title. However, a trip to the Black Sea coast and the Russian GP, started to change perceptions.
Bottas has a notoriously impressive qualifying record in Russia, securing third on the grid three years in a row, achieving a third- place finish for Williams in 2014. Sochi is famous for it’s smooth, largely unused track surface, so getting tyres up to temperature is not always easy. For Bottas though, it seems to come naturally to him. Keeping up with tradition, Bottas qualified third, notably half a second quicker than Hamilton. After an aborted start, Bottas leap-frogged the two Ferrari’s of Vettel and fellow Finn, Kimi Raikkonen, and at this point, made the F1 world sit up and take notice. He drove imperiously from start to finish to record a maiden victory. What was more impressive over the course of the weekend, was that Hamilton was no-where him. Was this the beginning of the Finn’s title bid?
The charge stuttered in round five at the Spanish GP due to an engine failure and at the following race in Monte Carlo, largely due to Mercedes’ issues with car set up. However, post Monaco, and with the Mercedes’ ‘diva’ car seemingly under control, Bottas was back to his best. He drove superbly to second in Canada, kept a calm head around the streets of Baku to secure eighteen more points and secured a pole and race victory double in Austria, fighting off Vettel brilliantly in the process. At this point he was 35 points behind the German, and for the first time this season, he well and truly believed he could win the title. Bottas then bounced back from a five-place grid penalty at Silverstone last time out, to finish second and is now 23 points, less than one race victory, behind Vettel as we head to Hungary this weekend.
The next steps.
It’s true to say that Valtteri Bottas has come a long way since January. He’s dealt with setbacks and comeback stronger and more resilient. His calm and level-headed approach has won him many admirers in the paddock. This coupled with his raw talent, have certainly put him back in the title picture. He now needs to build on this if he wants to become the conductor of the 2017 season, or just the second fiddle.