The difficult decision that defines Mercedes' future
It is a straight choice for Mercedes between Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Ocon for 2020, but it is a decision that will not only affect the career paths of both drivers, but also the next few years for the World Champion team.
Mercedes has had just four drivers throughout the course of the 2010s, the fewest of any team on the Formula 1 grid, with Michael Schumacher, Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas the only people to have raced a Silver Arrows since its return as a manufacturer team.
It now faces a decision that will not only shape its immediate future but could also define the path for the team well into the 2020s.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has already confirmed that it is a straight choice between incumbent Valtteri Bottas and long-term protégé and current reserve Esteban Ocon. It is not an easy decision for Wolff as the pair have different skills, are at different stages in their careers, while whichever path is taken brings risks.
Better the devil you know?
Top teams prefer stability. Working relationships build up over time. Lewis Hamilton, winner of 81 races and five titles, still has an insatiable desire to improve, while extracting the most from his engineers and wider team. He is on a much higher level in 2019 compared to his first Mercedes title-winning campaign in 2014. He was irked by the Mercedes crew shift for 2016. Sebastian Vettel forged a strong bond with Red Bull in the V8 era. Ferrari’s ‘Dream Team’ in the early 2000s barely changed. That is not to say that tweaks should never be made, for stability can equal stagnation, but winning is often founded on the platform of knowledge. Mercedes’ biggest off-season change in its period of domination was a rare example of a major personnel change working in its favour, as the departures of Nico Rosberg and Paddy Lowe released tension that had built up in various departments. Valtteri Bottas, therefore, offers stability.
But to place Bottas’ advantage solely on the dependable scale would be an oversight. He is, of course, the safer choice, and has forged a close working relationship with Hamilton. The ideal scenario for a title-winning Formula 1 team is to have an outstanding lead driver who can be supported by an apolitical team-mate, who scores enough points to ensure the Constructors’ trophy – which is the big one for the thousand-plus staff across the factories – can be put on the shelf. Bottas, even if he has failed to challenge for the title in 2017 and 2018 (not finishing as runner-up on either occasion) has delivered those points. He is unlikely to ever reach the heights of Hamilton, and being paired next to an all-time great can make a very good driver look average; Bottas has still taken 10 pole positions, five wins, and this year has taken the challenge to Hamilton in qualifying. He and Hamilton are level on four pole positions and, while his season has tailed off, he is one of only three drivers to have taken a win this year. And for five of Hamilton’s eight wins he has been second. That is not a record to be sniffy about. Drivers made to look average by all-time greats are still excellent. Think Kimi Raikkonen. Shaded by Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, but he is having a stellar season with Alfa Romeo.
But what about the weak points?
Bottas has been a dependable number two but there has been a recurring trend: an encouraging start to the season followed by an apparent plateauing of performance in comparison to Hamilton. In the unlikely event that Hamilton walks away after 2020, and if Mercedes could not recruit someone else, would Bottas be able to fill the breach? 2017 (third), 2018 (fifth) and 2019 (now hanging on to second) suggests he would not be backable in a title fight. That is delving into hypothetical scenarios. In the present there remain doubts over Bottas’ racecraft, which has stretched back through to his Williams days. In recovery drives he has taken too long to clear slower cars – Budapest was a case in point – while in comparison to the likes of Hamilton, Verstappen – and perhaps even the Ferrari drivers – he is not in the same league. There have been glimmers of promise, most notably in Azerbaijan and Britain, but this was while racing a team-mate, where naturally a few inches are given. He has never been one to lick the stamp and send it, so to speak. His tyre management, too, remains one weakness, though the slight shift to harder rubber in 2020 may assist his cause.
Validation in youth?
Red Bull shattered all conventions by sweeping Max Verstappen into F1 aged 17 and giving him a front-running car after just 23 grands prix, while even Ferrari felt its protégé Charles Leclerc was ready for 2019. Mercedes, meanwhile, has a young driver programme that has yet to result in one of its (few) members getting a full-time drive at the Silver Arrows. Ocon would fit that bill. He was woefully unlucky to miss out on a 2019 seat but he kept faith with Mercedes and Wolff, has put in the long (and very hard) hours in the simulator, and has integrated as a key member of the team. On the other side of the fence Wolff clearly has faith in Ocon’s ability and application, having played a crucial role in his career development for the past five years. Does that faith go so far as to plunging Ocon straight into a 2020 Mercedes seat?
But is it too risky?
Yes, Red Bull has 21-year-olds in Verstappen and Leclerc, but they have both made high-profile mistakes in the public eye through their respective learning phase. It would be remiss not to expect Ocon to take time to get up to speed and also make errors – and is that a risk Mercedes is willing to take when it has the safer option of Bottas? Ocon has yet to prove himself among the front-runners (not his fault, for he has only been at Manor and Force India), meaning we can not yet ascertain whether he will be able to deliver week in, week out when the pressure is at its highest. Pierre Gasly’s 2019 trials and tribulations are a testament of that. Ocon did not convincingly beat Sergio Perez during their time together; their qualifying pace was very similar while in race trim Perez often had the edge. When Bottas joined Mercedes he had four years under his belt and had taken multiple podiums, while Ocon has two-and-a-half seasons, and, more crucially, will have been out of a race drive for 12 months. Is he a future World Champion or a Bottas V2.0? Drivers who have skipped a season often speak about getting back up to speed and into a rhythm; to do so for the reigning World Champions, alongside Hamilton, would be a very tall order. Not since 1994, in the unusual circumstances post-Ayrton Senna’s death, has the reigning champion team fielded a driver out of the sport for a year. The team chasing can take a gamble on an unproven driver. Can the team being chased risk doing the same?
An Ocon effect
There is also a wider picture for Mercedes to consider when determining its 2020 line-up. The first is the long-term assumption that Hamilton will stay. There are no utter certainties that he will, but in previous interviews he has suggested that he has – at least – another contract in him. He is still only 34, operating on an exceptionally high level, and has the perfect set-up at Mercedes. He values loyalty, has been with the same brand through his entire Formula 1 career, and has freedom to pursue non-racing activities. If he stays in Formula 1, it is highly likely it will be with Mercedes. That ostensibly leaves Mercedes with a six or seven-time World Champion for 2021 and 2022. Putting in Bottas for 2020 would mean Ocon would have to find another seat on the grid – most probably at Renault – in order to maintain race sharpness and throw his hat into contention for 2021. Putting in Ocon for 2020 allows him time to work alongside one of the sport’s greats and gives Mercedes sufficient time to properly evaluate and assess Ocon’s long-term potential. But if it does make that long-term commitment to Ocon, and the Frenchman delivers what Mercedes expects, then it leaves an uncertain future for George Russell, currently plying his trade at Williams. Might Mercedes’ best course of action to be to retain Bottas, attempt to place Ocon at Renault (again), with Russell at Williams, therefore in effect giving itself another 12 months in which to make a more educated conclusion? That would surely be the best outcome for all parties in an ideal world, but Formula 1 rarely operates in an ideal world, as Ocon found out early last August. Mercedes’ leverage remains limited. Racing Point will retain its pairing while Williams is an unlikely destination. A rival team will be wary of taking on a driver which Mercedes can call back at any time, and is unlikely to commit to just a one-year deal. It is a quandary with no clear conclusion. Could Wolff stomach losing Ocon for two, or maybe three, years if it keeps him in a race seat elsewhere? One other spanner in the works is Max Verstappen. He will not be at Mercedes in 2020, but he is a free agent thereafter, and Wolff is an admirer (who wouldn’t be?) of the young Dutchman. Might there be a temptation for a ‘superteam’ of Hamilton and Verstappen? That's a lot of questions and thinking points to come from an ostensibly straight choice...
What does it mean for the rest of the grid?
We are unlikely to witness the sort of bonkers silly season that swept through Formula 1 12 months ago, but inevitably there are likely to be changes. A Bottas-Mercedes deal would leave Renault as the prime option for Ocon, though this would be a complicated negotiation process, while an Ocon-Mercedes deal would leave Bottas on the market. A multiple-race winner, with knowledge of Mercedes, would be a prime candidate for any respectable team.
Red Bull remains unconvinced by Pierre Gasly but if it is to promote from within then it has boxed itself into a corner, for it has either Daniil Kvyat (been there, done that, got the T-shirt) or Alexander Albon (who has long-term potential but risks being Gasly Mk2 – or even Kvyat Mk3 if you regard Gasly’s accelerated promotion as a Kvyat repeat). One outlier for Toro Rosso is Naoki Yamamoto, Honda’s two-time Super Formula champion who is set for a Suzuka FP1 outing. But that is unlikely. As much as Honda desires a Japanese driver he is 31 and has never raced outside of his home country. Nobuharu Matsushita has European experience but is not performing well enough in F2. Racing Point is to stick with its current pairing, Haas has Kevin Magnussen under contract while Romain Grosjean is on shakier ground, but has a strong history with the team. If Nico Hulkenberg is unseated at Renault, ostensibly by Ocon, he has been linked to Haas. Alfa Romeo will likely stick; Kimi Raikkonen has a 2020 deal, and is bagging the points, while Ferrari – which has an influence on the second seat – has no clear option beyond Antonio Giovinazzi. Mick Schumacher is the romantics’ choice, and has already tested for the team, but it would be an unwise and unnecessary promotion. He will still be a Schumacher in 2021. Williams has Russell for 2020 while reserve Nicholas Latifi is an option if it deems the Robert Kubica comeback story to have reached its final destination.