Why Bottas deserves more respect at Mercedes

Date published: May 26 2021 - Henry Valantine

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes

There’s something that doesn’t feel quite right with the way Valtteri Bottas is being spoken about like he’s already been dropped by Mercedes.

Of course, the widespread speculation surrounding the second seat at Mercedes has been a big talking point in Formula 1 this season, but Bottas shouldn’t be discounted from the possibility of retaining his drive just yet.

While the likes of George Russell and Esteban Ocon have been mooted as possible contenders for that seat, as well as people from outside of Mercedes’ own stable, the fact remains that Bottas still has a chance to make that seat his own again for 2022 – which must be a strange position in which to find yourself on a personal level, auditioning for a role you already hold.

While Bottas has ‘only’ earned nine victories at Mercedes, he has been on the podium 50 times for the team in total. Fifty. The overall dominance of the car aside, he has almost always been where the team have needed him to be in order to win the Constructors’ Championship year after year.

You certainly can’t say the same for the corresponding Red Bull driver pairings alongside Max Verstappen after Daniel Ricciardo’s departure.

Toto Wolff broke with his usual balanced assessments after a frustrating Monaco Grand Prix weekend, implying that Bottas was partially to blame for his bizarre retirement after his front-right wheel nut failed, meaning his tyre could not be changed in the pits.

Wolff intimated that Bottas stopped short of his pit mark, meaning his mechanic had to apply the wheel gun at an angle which, in turn, caused the failure. All three other tyres were changed successfully and in good time, so clearly Bottas missing his marks wasn’t an insurmountable issue.

But there’s a wider conversation at play here, with Wolff’s comments looking like he’s making his driver the scapegoat for something which probably wasn’t his fault. Would he publicly criticise Lewis Hamilton for the same incident? You’d suspect not.

Whether or not the team boss is setting out his stall for as and when Bottas leaves the team is merely speculation at this point, but it’s not a good sign that he is being openly critiqued in public, as unwarranted as it was.

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The infamous “wingman” tag has stuck with Bottas, fairly or unfairly, which combined with the team orders saga in Sochi in 2018 made him question whether or not he wanted to carry on in the sport altogether.

The man himself remains remarkably self-critical too, saying recently that he feels the team will have expected him to win a World Championship by now, so he keeps the pressure on himself to earn that elusive title.

Bottas is still a popular figure within the team, with Hamilton joining the calls to ease off on the Finn and dubbed him an “amazing team-mate” and that the pair have continually combined to deliver the results the team needs.

It’s widely accepted that Bottas has been playing second fiddle to Hamilton in his five seasons at Mercedes, but he finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to beat possibly the best driver there has ever been in equal machinery.

His qualifying performances have always been close to Hamilton’s level, lapping at a respectable average of +0.237s behind his team-mate through the 2020 season. Equally, having two cars competing at the front opens up strategy options for the team in the race – including the reigning champion’s switch to a two-stopper in Spain that brought him the race win.

On top of that, bad luck has also played a big part in his failed title quests – especially last year. A tyre failure in Silverstone, punctures in Monza and Bahrain, hitting loose debris at Imola, damage from contact in Turkey, a botched pit stop in Sakhir and a power unit failure at the Nurburgring all hampered his hopes in a commanding Mercedes car.

Criticism shouldn’t escape the 31-year-old completely though – of course it shouldn’t. Of his 17 pole positions, just seven have been converted into wins.

Also, he should not have been in a position at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix where Russell was within striking distance in a Williams before the pair collided, and not playing the team game when he was asked to move over for Hamilton in Spain may not have helped him with his bosses.

It’s not often you can look to Red Bull as a place for diplomacy and patience surrounding their drivers, but Christian Horner did go above and beyond with Alex Albon last season to say that the seat was his to lose, rather than actively lining up a replacement too early.

Mercedes could do with showing the same respect to their current driver – and for everyone else to cut him a bit of slack in this early stage of the season. Bottas has said he wants his future to be firmed up by the summer, so he should be given the space to show what he can do before a decision is made either way.

Henry Valantine

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