Another year, another season filled with conjecture over the potential line-up at Mercedes is already underway. With its talisman in Lewis Hamilton looking to extend his stay and a new era of technical regulations inbound, the time has come for the Silver Arrows to put faith in youth and justify its own junior program.
In the aftermath of Nico Rosberg’s shock departure, Mercedes have understandably erred on the side of caution with its line-up, given the in-fighting that happened between Rosberg and Hamilton. There had to be some sort of harmony within the team to ensure they could focus on results and not the constant war between its drivers, fearing they would collide and leave a race with nothing.
In came Bottas, a typically calm, cool and collected Finn but one who had proved his chops for four seasons at Williams where he shone alongside Pastor Maldonado and held his own against veteran Felipe Massa, who himself was no slouch despite being in the final years of his career.
The past four years at Mercedes has proven what a formidable challenge it is to go up against Hamilton, who is now the most successful Formula 1 driver in history. However, while acknowledging the task Bottas faces, results have ultimately been lacking compared to his earlier promise.
At the time of writing, Mercedes has won 54 of the 82 races since the beginning of the Hamilton-Bottas partnership in 2017, however, 45 of those victories belong to Hamilton, whereas Bottas has scored just nine. The qualifying stakes between the two are better reading for the Finn, who has 17 poles to Hamilton’s 24, proving that Bottas has the speed to match the Briton on a Saturday.
But Bottas’ win/podium percentage is also poor, converting a meagre 15% against Hamilton’s 58%. Even Verstappen in the Red Bull has managed 24% in a car which until now has not been as competitive.
But when the stats are compared between Hamilton and Rosberg over the duration of their partnership from 2013-2016, the stark differences become apparent.
While one of the four years of the Hamilton/Rosberg duo did not yield a title thanks to the pace of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull, the stats are still staggering. Hamilton and Rosberg made off with 54 victories over a 78 race period with a 32-22 split in the Brit’s favour. Their qualifying record was also very competitive with a 35-29 split, again going the way of Hamilton.
Ever since he lost the world title in 2016 to his former friend turned rival, Hamilton has gone in search of such a fine line of perfection in order to not leave a sniff of glory for his competitors such was the anguish of missing out to Rosberg.
While it’s easy for many to jump on the bandwagon to criticise Bottas, the task of being a team-mate to someone so ruthless, so in tune with their car and arguably the greatest driver the sport has seen, cannot be underestimated.
Yet questions must be asked of Bottas’ performances, which have been sub-par of late. He’s not even come close to Hamilton’s race pace, with Verstappen often splitting the two Mercs. Is 2021 the right year to finally wave goodbye to the man from Nastola?
While Team boss Toto Wolff has a difficult decision to make, this isn’t the first time he has come under pressure to look to a potential junior driver. In 2018, the very future of the Mercedes junior program came under threat as the opportunity for Esteban Ocon, Pascal Wehrlein and George Russell all appeared to be viable options for Bottas’ potential vacant seat after finding himself out of contract.
Speaking in 2018, Woff said: “If we can’t find a solution for these guys, I would question the [Mercedes] junior programme in the future. As it stands, [there are] three really talented kids with a lack of opportunity, and this has come to a point now where we need to decide what we want to do in the future.”
Wolff ultimately chose to keep faith in Bottas, leaving Wehrlein to depart the team for Formula E, while Ocon was left on the sidelines for the 2019 season before moving to Renault – now Alpine. This faith in Bottas was repaid as the Finn would go on to win four races that year, but another lacklustre season in 2020 has once again left questions looming over his future.
Many of Mercedes’ rivals have looked to their young driver programmes to promote from within, but this hasn’t been the case at Mercedes, which, again, leaves question marks hanging over the viability of its own development program! So why not start with the obvious choice in taking on Russell, given how Ocon and Wehrlein have already slipped through the cracks?
Russell’s junior formulae record speaks for itself, but unlike his life-long competitors such as Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, and Alexander Albon, they have all since been handed an opportunity in competitive machinery and have been able to secure solid results, while Russell has had to contend with a Williams at the back of the field as the team goes through the most difficult period in its 44-year history.
At the penultimate round of the 2020 season, Russell got a unique opportunity to perform in the all-conquering W11 at the Sakhir Grand Prix after Hamilton contracted Covid-19. Russell swiftly stepped up with great aplomb and merely intensified his already growing reputation.
Despite losing out to Bottas in qualifying by just 0.023s, come race day he would go on to pass the Finn at the start (and again later in the grand prix) and would go on to lead over two-thirds of the race. A potential fairytale maiden win looked within his grasp before a team error over tyres at his pit stop and then a puncture extinguished all hope of the 23-year old standing on the top step.
2021 has also seen a touch of controversy involving Bottas and Russell when the pair collided heavily at the Emilia Romanga Grand Prix while fighting for 10th place – somewhere the Finn should never have been given the pace of the Mercedes. It’s unlikely the whole affair will have hampered Russell’s chances, or Wolff’s view of the young Briton.
The Austrian is reluctant to come to a decision so early into the 2021 season. Speaking at the Portuguese Grand Prix when asked about the potential driver situation between Russell and Bottas, he said: “I think we need to look into the season and how the next races unfold and then it is a judgement call I believe. Not a very scientific response but I haven’t got any at the moment.”
It’s clear the partnership between Hamilton and Bottas has worked incredibly well, delivering the team seven consecutive championship doubles – a record in F1 – and some will ask the question; ‘why upset that balance that is working so well?’
However, I believe the time has come for Mercedes to make a bold decision, and one that will keep the team at the front for years to come, as well as ensuring they keep a hold of Russell within its ranks. Mercedes must push their youngster to the fore, mould him into their own and offer him the chance to become a front-running driver all while learning from Hamilton, who will, inevitably, retire within the next few years.