Why Valtteri Bottas will do better at Mercedes than you think
F1, as we are often reminded, is a fickle business.
Valtteri Bottas must now know this, for good and ill. Rewind just six weeks and he was spoken of as the sport’s forgotten man by defenders; as a busted flush by detractors. Either way it didn’t look good for him.
But then things changed, changed utterly. The new world champion Nico Rosberg dropped his bombshell – not least on his Mercedes squad – by announcing that he was off pronto. And for all that this resulted in an explosion of names touted to fill the prized vacancy Bottas emerged quickly as the clear front-runner, where he remains. The announcement of him getting the 2017 Merc seat it seems is a matter of time, particularly as other pieces in this jigsaw such as Paddy Lowe returning to Williams have fallen into place reportedly.
The prospect though seems in some quarters to have been met with a shoulder shrug. The view being that Bottas will be solid no doubt, but not spectacular. That he got the gig mainly as there were few other options, Merc being left rather short on them by the tardiness of Nico’s announcement.
The prospect though seems in some quarters to have been met with a shoulder shrug. The view being that Bottas will be solid no doubt, but not spectacular. That he got the gig mainly as there were few other options
Peter Windsor for one sounded suitably guarded when he said of Bottas recently that “alongside Lewis Hamilton he would be a great stand-in, fill-in for Nico Rosberg if you like, quite capable of winning races, potentially a world championship if everything came right for him. He isn’t going to give Lewis a massively hard time…”
Martin Brundle similarly kept his enthusiasm somewhat in check. “Lewis [Hamilton] is kind of ‘bring it on’ isn’t he? ‘Send me whoever you like, I think I'll be faster than them’” he observed. “But I think he’d be a bit edgy if it was Fernando Alonso or Sebastian Vettel [as his team mate rather than Bottas].”
Yet here’s that fickleness again. How quickly we forget. Not that long ago – just two years back indeed – Bottas was thought well on the way to being among the best of the F1 best; perhaps even was there already. The man who had pipped Daniel Ricciardo in the 2008 Renault Eurocup – and who broke through to F1 celebrity in the same 2014 season – was spoken of in similar terms as the Australian.
“I’m really impressed with him,” said Williams’ Pat Symonds at the end of that campaign. “He’s very bright and he’s very quick. He doesn’t make many mistakes and when he does he learns from them.
“He’s got a great personality and he’s a real team player and I’m absolutely convinced that he’s got the potential to be a world champion.
“I’ve worked with a few world champions in their early days and I’ve no doubt that Valtteri will be a world champion.”
I’ve worked with a few world champions in their early days and I’ve no doubt that Valtteri will be a world champion - Pat Symonds
Windsor meanwhile in 2014, displaying remarkable prescience, wrote that “should Lewis or Nico ever decide to leave the factory team, assume Valtteri will be the logical replacement.”
But… the resurgent Williams started to flat line in 2015 and at roughly the same time Bottas’s next-big-thing reputation got curly at the corners. That fickleness again.
“The spark of last year,” said Mark Hughes of the Finn in mid-2015, “the guy that was putting those aggressive passes on everyone at Stowe as he came through the field, hasn’t been so evident in 2015…the trajectory of his progress has definitely been brought up short.” In 2016 it was more of the same.
Was it simply that the Williams fell from the pace and that Valtteri was tainted by association? Or did he relent a little himself simultaneously? Some have noted his tendency to sink in races, be overtaken. Defenders insist the sinks reflected car characteristics rather than Valtteri – that the Williams wasn’t good for keeping its tyres in shape, certainly not compared with some of the cars around it in the midfield. Also that it reflected that Bottas was getting his machine into grid slots it really had no right to be in, such is his excellent qualifying ability.
Was it simply that the Williams fell from the pace [since 2014] and that Valtteri was tainted by association? Or did he relent a little himself simultaneously?
On that quali skill, Ben Anderson of Autosport was correct to point out that Bottas’s average starting place of 8.3 last season was worthy of praise, given that he definitely did not have one of the best four cars on the grid (do the math). You could add too that the average was near enough a match of Nico Hulkenberg’s, was a whole place better than Sergio Perez’s and two places better than Bottas’s stable mate Felipe Massa.
While in that most pitiless of measures of F1 potency Bottas’s intra-team qualifying match-up score in 2016 was the most crushing on the grid, at 17-4. Yes, some will suggest, Massa seems rather past his best these days. But again underlining Bottas’s thankless predicament you can only beat what you’re up against, and in any case the paddock consensus is that Bottas’s single-lap efforts often are stunning.
It seems therefore Bottas has a good chance to start plenty of races ahead of Hamilton, and we know that counts for a lot in F1. It may count for even more in 2017 if as expected the Pirellis will be more as nature intended plus the additional aero may, if fears are borne out, make following other cars no easier.
Yet with Bottas it’s not merely about raw speed.
“It certainly isn't just one thing,” said Symonds of Bottas’s skillset after the Finn’s 2014 breakthrough. “It’s not about being quick as that’s almost a given and there are plenty of people who are quick but are never going to win the world championship.
“It’s the intelligence, it's the application, the thinking about things, the hard work that is put in, the attention to detail... Those sort of things will win him the championship.”
It certainly isn't just one thing. It’s not about being quick as that’s almost a given. It’s the intelligence, it's the application, the thinking about things, the hard work that is put in, the attention to detail... Those sort of things will win him the championship - Pat Symonds
The intelligence Symonds speaks of is quite something in Bottas’s case. “He’s got a good brain on him” noted Williams chief operations engineer Mark Gillan before Bottas made his F1 race debut. “And his [technical] feedback is such that he doesn’t say too much, but what he does say is succinct and is directed specifically at areas where you look at it [and] you say, ‘yeah, that’s right’.”
To watch Bottas trackside too is to watch a master in his art. One ultra-smooth, and able to reach his ultimate pace right away as if one flicked a switch. One far from the sort that deserves the ‘meh’ that his promotion has been met with.
“He always impresses me in FP1. He’s very good at picking up what the grip level is, picking up the pace, you don’t see him massively out of shape like some of the other drivers, he doesn’t take ages to get tuned in. There’s a lot of ability there.
I think people have got the impression that he’s quite a boring, safe driver. But he’s a very good driver. There’s a lot of ability there - Edd Straw
“Just because the Williams has gone backwards since 2014, and his star has seemed to wane in the public eye, he’s still performing at a very high level. This is not a conservative number two who’s going to be half a second behind Lewis Hamilton.”
Karun Chandhok concurred. “I remember going to the [end of lap] chicane…in Canada…in free practice,” he noted, “and he was so good…just hit the ground running, straight away in free practice, and looked so so comfortable and confident in the car, dancing it around. There were only probably three or four others that we thought really stood out.”
“He has the technique” said Windsor in 2014. “Watch him from the outside of the Lesmo Curves at Monza; watch him into the pool section – and La Rascasse – in Monaco. The movements are seamless, almost Trulli-like. The precision is absolute. And he is fast – a crucial modifier in this case, because there’s nothing easier in F1 than being smooth and slow.”
One wonders indeed if this lack of driving ostentation, allied to similar conduct out of the car, contributed to the “boring, safe” image that Straw spoke of.
Yet Bottas’s skills don’t stop there. “I’d certainly say his strength is his feeling for the tyres” Symonds added. It remains to be seen the extent that this forthcoming season’s lower degradation rubber and bags more downforce will influence this, but there’s little to suggest his skill won’t be an asset.
In any case his ability to adapt is another if his key strengths. “I think I can adapt to new things quite quickly,” Bottas has said; “even when I tried an F1 car the first time it was only a few laps and I was really comfortable.”
I think I can adapt to new things quite quickly; even when I tried an F1 car the first time it was only a few laps and I was really comfortable - Valtteri Bottas
And while during his developing years this adaptability had a flip side, that it stopped him searching for set-up improvements, Bottas insists he’s improved here. “I still feel like I can adapt to a lot of different set-ups and driving styles, but at the same time I’ve improved to really think about and feel how the car should be improved, so I can get more out of it” he added.
Then there is his consistency. Mistakes, or even off days (Monaco visits aside), have been hard to cite from Bottas, while in the last three seasons from 58 starts Bottas scored in 45 of them. It shouldn’t be forgotten that in 2016 Bottas managed to out-score the highly-rated Hulkenberg by 13, even though the Hulk clearly had the better wheels. As Straw added: “At the absolute worst I can possibly see if Bottas does end up in that seat is he’s going to deliver Mercedes a hatful of points, and be a good team player…He’s not going to be a disaster; he’s not going to be underachieving desperately.”
On the face of it too Bottas, unflinching in that typically Finnish way, should be perfect to let Lewis’s habitual fireworks rather rebound off him. And while the pressure of fighting near the front can reveal character in sometimes surprising ways, conspicuous podium anteroom awkwardness with Lewis seems unlikely with the phlegmatic Finn.
Mistakes, or even off days (Monaco visits aside), have been hard to cite from Bottas, while in the last three seasons from 58 starts Bottas scored in 45 of them
But a lot of how he’ll do precisely will come down to things that currently are unknowable. Things at the front are decided in the margins, and while as Straw outlined Hamilton is unlikely to be way ahead it remains to be seen if the Finn has the fractions of tenths required to give Hamilton consistent problems. There also is the question of how Bottas will respond to the promotion more generally, and that also remains a step into the unknown.
“We know Valtteri Bottas has got the speed,” Brundle said recently in this ilk, “but it’s a different story then when you turn up in a car where winning races and winning the world championship is expected, not a wish, not a maybe, not a lucky day. And there’s nowhere to run and hide; the spotlight is ever-stronger.
But he added “I think Valtteri’s got the mental capacity and the speed to handle that.”
We could add however that in the first half of 2015 Bottas appeared to go off the boil somewhat amid rumours that Ferrari was monitoring him. He admitted later that the whispers distracted him. He’ll hope that was peculiar and not evidence of a fundamental lack of big match temperament.
But it feels more broadly like we’ve been here before. This was something outlined by Nigel Roebuck in the past few days: “It’s a fact that Bottas has not been thought of as in the days when a Ferrari contract seemed to be looming, but he will, I fancy, provide a more competitive proposition than perhaps the Mercedes number-one driver…anticipates. In their four years as team mates, after all, Hamilton may have had 32 victories to Rosberg’s 22, but it was not the annihilation many had predicted.”
So a man who is quick – particularly on a quali lap, smart, and can be counted up to knuckle down and deliver consistently as Lewis oscillates. Perhaps the grandest attribute of the man to replace Nico Rosberg is that he’ll be a lot like Nico Rosberg.