A better bit of Bottas - why Valtteri is different in 2018

In F1, as we are often reminded, things change quickly. And so it was for Valtteri Bottas in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku. With three laps left and over 90 minutes of effort done he was all set to triumph thanks to a fast, determined and flawless performance allied with smart strategy. Then he ran over debris and his tyre went pop – first to nothing in a blink.

And there was more than a race win lost. Without that wretched fortune Bottas would be top of the drivers’ table too. Presumably also our championship considerations would be a little different to the habitual Lewis Hamilton vs Sebastian Vettel.

Prior to the season start we would likely have thought Bottas being 30 points off his team-mate at the table top after four rounds utterly standard, but it doesn’t begin to tell the tale. Baku ended his run of qualifying ahead of Mercedes team-mate Hamilton in four of the last five, but extended his run to three rounds in a row of leading the Mercedes charge on race day.

Disaster struck Bottas in Azerbaijan as he was leading the race

His foul luck this year wasn’t contained only in Baku either. Let’s not forget a safety car cost him a probable win in China (seven points gone); Bahrain we’ll come to, yet even there Mercedes admitted it erred by being slow to twig that Vettel was trying a one-stopper (another seven points). In other words Bottas could be not so much leading the table as lording over it with three wins from four and 79 points at the top. Near enough double what he actually has. Imagine what we’d be saying then.

You can make a coherent case that Bottas has been the driver of this season so far. He’s almost certainly been the driver of the last three rounds.

Yet for Bottas things have changed quickly for the good too. Just over a fortnight ago it was open season on him as all lined up to snipe on the grounds that he didn’t make a better effort of getting with and passing Vettel for the win in Bahrain. Mark Blundell was not alone when he said he “bottled it”.

“Bottas is solid,” Blundell went on, “but in that kind of situation I think he should have gone for it and there were points, and a win, left on the table.”

Other critics point out that two of his three wins have come from pole and the other came after taking the lead at the start. Edd Straw noted on the point that “there are question marks about whether Bottas has that insistent killer instinct.” The concept of a safe but unspectacular number one-and-a-half, not a number one, was everywhere.

Bottas is solid, but in that kind of situation I think he should have gone for it and there were points, and a win, left on the table - Mark Blundell

We can trace the open season back a little further too – Bottas binned it in qualifying for the Melbourne season-opener and not only did that extrapolate to him getting only an eighth place finish it also meant he wasn’t around to aid Hamilton when Ferrari performed its successful in-race pincer movement on him.

Even with the upturn Bottas’s Mercedes future is far from assured – those old wretched circumstances are against him again. His contract is up this year and the very fanciable suitor Daniel Ricciardo is available. Hamilton also is yet to sign a contract extension beyond this year so Mercedes may be tempted to hedge its bets by signing another front-liner in case Lewis walks.

Yet if Bottas continues as he is it’ll be very hard to drop him. Therefore it’s tempting to ask what’s changed for him this year.

Initial thoughts again often land on the ubiquitous Lewis Hamilton, and why he’s ‘under performing’ rather than on why Bottas perhaps is doing anything good. This indeed is double jeopardy for Valtteri.

Bottas claimed three victories in 2017; Hamilton took nine

“The problem that Valtteri has, and it’s an unfortunate one, is that whenever Lewis doesn’t beat him in qualifying that’s [us thinking that] Lewis underperforming isn’t it?,” Anthony Davidson said in Baku.

“This is why he needs to do arguably more work than maybe some would have to, because of his team-mate. People always see it as at this point at least is that Hamilton’s underperforming whenever Valtteri finishes on top.

“It’s all about perception this game, and I think it’s going to take a little more time for people to start realising, like we eventually realised with [Nico] Rosberg, that he was actually a genuine competitor, he could genuinely outqualify him. But in the beginning it was ‘what a bad day for Lewis’.

“Bottas has to get the message across to fans – I’m as good as this guy, I can beat him fair and square, it wasn’t him making a mistake, it was me doing a better job.”

David Croft then interjected to say that Bottas has finished second eight times in the last 17 (before Baku), which perhaps contributes to an ‘always the bridesmaid’ image. “Bahrain didn’t help him in that respect”, Davidson added.

Another theory is that a struggling Mercedes – as this year’s car has been by the team’s repeated admission – suits Bottas’s driving style more than Hamilton’s. It wouldn’t be new if so – something said a lot in the early part of last season was that when the Mercedes wasn’t quite on point, lacking front end bite, it suited Bottas’s softer turn ins than Hamilton’s more aggressive sort (see Monaco and Sochi). Yet when the car was more dialled in, seen more frequently later in the year (and a good car will almost always have a strong front end, almost by definition), Hamilton stepped up to be the lead Merc while Bottas flailed.

The problem that Valtteri has is that whenever Lewis doesn’t beat him in qualifying that’s [us thinking that] Lewis underperforming isn’t it? This is why he needs to do arguably more work than maybe some would have to. It’s all about perception this game. Bottas has to get the message across to fans 'I’m as good as this guy' - Anthony Davdison

There was a similar pattern at McLaren back in the day with Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard – that there was little to choose, indeed DC often was ahead, when the car struggled but Mika was way ahead when the car was good.

Has Bottas’s strong finish to 2017 – where he won the final race and took the final two poles – fed into his season start this year? “It’s not just the start of this year, it’s the last race of last year as well,” mused Davidson on this in Baku, “where perhaps the confidence grows, he had a good winter to think about it and has come back stronger than ever before for this season.”

The pair get on well, so why would Mercedes change that?

One season feeding into the next is a phenomenon commented upon in many sports, though it’s hard to say how much it actually is a factor. If nothing else we risk falling foul of the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc (after it therefore because of it). F1 history also is patchy on the subject; off-seasons are long and who prevails in F1 owes to a multitude of factors.

I’ve heard it argued that Damon’s Hill 1996 championship was based on his turnaround victory in the final round of 1995 in Australia. Undoubtedly before that Adelaide win Hill was in one heck of a slump, culminating in a wretched performance at Suzuka. “I couldn’t do anything right,” he admitted of that race. “I couldn’t even drive properly. I was falling off all over the place, a sure sign that I was in complete meltdown. To say my driving muse has deserted me in that race would be a massive understatement.”

But Hill says also the Australian win wasn’t the big factor in his turnaround, rather it was work he did in the subsequent off season.

Similar with Nico Rosberg ending the 2015 season – and his cap-tossing in Austin’s podium ante room – with three straight victories, which he followed by starting 2016 with four wins which in turn set him up for his championship. Nico himself thought one fed into the other, saying during his good late 2015 form that “it’s always better to end on a high than a low, for sure, the season; also thinking about next year…” But you could equally make the case that those four wins early in 2016 owed much to unrelated misfortune befalling Hamilton.

The best explanations often are the simplest. Bottas one year on has his feet further under the Mercedes table, able to build the team and car more around him – in both the metaphorical and literal sense. It’s easy to forget the extent his Mercedes promotion last year was at the 11th hour, what with Rosberg’s shock retirement after the 2016 final round. Bottas wasn’t confirmed for the Mercedes drive until mid-January.

I honestly think the last race [China] was probably the best race Bottas has ever driven, Shanghai was impeccable - Anthony Davidson

Perhaps with this it’s the case that Bottas was always good. That he remains the driver Williams used to rave about, his potential boundless; that Pat Symonds insisted would win championships (and he’s observed a few champions at close quarters). That would take our collective breath away on a green track in the opening minutes of Friday practice.

And good performances always have a virtuous cycle effect in themselves. “Bottas must have a little bit more confidence in himself knowing that next time it comes to qualifying I really do stand a chance,” Davidson added, “it’s not just going to be that three or four tenths or more away from Lewis – I can do this and I am expecting to do it. ‘Watch me go now’ – that’s the mentality you get into.

Hamilton embraces Bottas after his Baku defeat

“I honestly think the last race [China] was probably the best race Bottas has ever driven, Shanghai was impeccable.”

Old reputations die hard though. During the late safety car period in Baku Paul di Resta in his TV commentary said that in the late sprint to the flag Vettel running second should concentrate on Hamilton behind rather than Bottas ahead, to be minded of the long game. “He has no evidence that Bottas can go all the way in the championship,” he noted.

Maybe so. Lewis has the track record and we’ve had false dawns with Bottas before. Indeed I probably could have written a similar article at around the time of the British Grand Prix last year, after which Bottas entered a form trough. Yet as noted at the outset with even luck and Bottas sitting atop the points table would we be discarding his case so readily?

And if Bottas continues to perform as he is surely his luck will even out. Then it’ll be impossible to discard his case.