After just two rounds of the 2021 season Valtteri Bottas already faces a 28-point deficit to team-mate and World Champion Lewis Hamilton.
That isn’t necessarily a surprise given Bottas’ Emilia Romagna Grand Prix weekend came to a violent end at mid-distance after a hefty clash with George Russell along the main straight.
But even without that interlocking of wheels Bottas was poised to haemorrhage big points to Hamilton and expected title contender Max Verstappen.
At the time of the collision Bottas had just been lapped by Verstappen and was fighting to hang on to ninth place in the race.
The clues to Bottas’ weekend unravelling were there as early as the second practice session, in spite of setting a time that left him fastest. Even on his second push lap on Soft tyres he could not go quicker than his Medium benchmark, and was a little off Hamilton’s personal best.
Come qualifying Bottas was fastest in Q1, and set a time quick enough in Q2 to comfortably progress via the Medium rubber, but in Q3 the pace ebbed away.
Bottas struggled for speed, particularly through the first sector of the lap, and was left in an atypical position on the leaderboard. The gap to Hamilton was under half a second, which at some venues in other circumstances may have been a loss of one or two spots, but such was the competitive nature of the session that Bottas was left eighth.
“It’s so on a knife-edge in qualifying, that sometimes you get it to work, like me in Q1, when I did a much faster time than in Q3, I got them [tyres] to work,” he said.
“Then for some reason I couldn’t get them to work in Q3 the same way. It’s all about one or two degrees of surface or tyre temperature. It’s hard to explain. Obviously track temp was changing a bit, depending how much cloud there was etc, so maybe that had a bit of a factor.”
Bottas lost further positions through the rain-lashed opening lap, dropping behind Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz and Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll, laying the groundwork for a race in which the Mercedes driver was stuck in the mid-pack. He couldn’t clear Stroll, while he was among the gaggle of cars that lost buckets of time behind Wet-shod Pierre Gasly. When Bottas pitted for slicks he came out just around leader Verstappen, having to back off to let the Red Bull through, further compromising his warm-up woes, and leaving him more susceptible to the chasing Russell.
“The main thing we need to focus on is why I was in that position,” said Bottas. “Obviously I had quite a struggle with the inters, being stuck behind Lance all through the inter section of the race, and when I stopped, obviously got pressure from the guys behind who stopped earlier and got their tyres working already. That warm-up was the bigger issue.”
It is an element Mercedes is keen to understand ahead of the next event in Portugal.
“The Q1 lap would have put him in the top four, he just couldn’t match that lap going, that was the third lap on the tyres, moving to the first lap he couldn’t match that,” said Mercedes’ trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin. “There’s something there we need to understand, the thing with tyre temperature is often a very small difference has a very big impact on the grip. Unfortunately for Valtteri he was just the wrong side of a lot of cars and that gave him a compromised start position.
“In the race he was struggling following, and being able to overtake just because he was losing front end in the tow and also the rear wasn’t strong, and again it was that theme of warm-up was a problem for him. Then on the transition to Mediums the warm-up meant he got caught in that bunch of cars, Max was there as leader coming through, and that was what really triggered the sequence that ended his race.
“There have been bits of the weekends where he has definitely looked very strong and parts where he looked like he’d give Lewis a tough time, and really I think all the negatives have come down to this issue of warm-up in those conditions and we need to find a solution to do that – and I think if we do that the rest of it should click into place.”