Formula One’s worst kept secret has now become the eventual reality – Valtteri Bottas is the new man in at Mercedes, replacing the now retired World Champion Nico Rosberg, and lining up alongside Lewis Hamilton for 2017.
Yet something that was skirted over slightly and only now is being brought up was the terms of the contract – more specifically, the fact that it’s only a single year deal to start with.
The first thought that comes to mind is that Bottas – a fast, consistent and hungry racing driver – is merely a stopgap before the driver market unlocks itself for 2018. Mercedes, as the top team in recent seasons, are the most attractive outfit for any top line driver to race for. After this coming season, and providing the upcoming year of racing doesn’t hold any major surprises, both Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso will become available, and they also have two young drivers on the grid in the shape of Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon that are destined for great things.
Bottas is now between a rock and a hard place; in order to be considered for a contract extension, he has to go toe-to-toe with a triple World Champion, who is out for blood after narrowly missing out at the very end last season. But he has to do it in a way that doesn’t unsettle the incredibly successful apple cart of the German marque, which will now be looking for a more stable environment for the team.
History tells us that Hamilton’s favouring of psychology to get under his teammate’s skin, especially when gunning for the championship, can be something that can grind down even the very best. Fernando Alonso lasted a single season, albeit his exit fuelled by his relationship with Ron Dennis that anything else. Heikki Kovalainen’s potential as a future champion eroded away so much that Caterham was the last vestige of failed career. Jenson Button was resistant up to a point. The duel with Rosberg has been the main storyline of the F1 soap opera for the past three seasons.
There’s no reason why Bottas can’t, and won’t, do the job asked of him. But in 2015 he was heavily linked with being compatriot Kimi Raikkonen’s eventual replacement at Ferrari. The €20m fee to break his Williams contract was eventually too large for the Italian team to justify, but the seeds had been sown – Bottas became distracted and his performances dropped. Pat Symonds stated that the whole affair ‘disturbed’ the Finn, which might demonstrate that mind games are not his forte, and could quite possibly be his Achilles heel.
And also, if you try to collate the standout performances from Bottas and once you get past 3rd on the grid in Canada and finishing 8th in Austin – both in his rookie year of 2013 – the other notable Williams achievements in that time fall to former teammate Felipe Massa. Pole in Austria 2014? Massa. Leading the British race in mixed conditions? Felipe baby. Valtteri has been solid but not spectacular, which creates the aura of being solid, dependable and – whisper it quietly – a solid number two to Hamilton.
It all seems to boil down to this one year deal. It’s motivation for the Finn, but also insurance for Mercedes. If it doesn’t work out they will be in a great position to go fishing in the market, but Bottas won’t be left high and dry. The suggestion of returning to Williams has been mooted by some corners, especially as replacing Felipe Massa will be the team’s priority for the second year running after his return from retirement.
There simply isn’t any room for error in 2017 for Bottas. This is it – all the championing from fans and pundits alike will be justified if the opportunities are taken. But they will be and far between while in a team with a great like Hamilton, and may have to be taken by increasing his speed in certain situations; consistency over one lap will have to improve, especially if he’s to compete with the likes of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen. He’ll have to find it within himself to produce displays of being unbeatable, something he’s been close to, but not quite managed yet.
Failure to do so would see Bottas trying to shoehorn himself back in the midfield which he’s been fortunate enough to escape from. And with the way the driver market is shaping up 12 months from now, it could be a tight squeeze.