There’s a compelling argument to be made about the career and prospect of Valtteri Bottas that goes a little like this.
Bottas spent several seasons toiling away at Williams F1. He was a driver that could deliver the team points and even had his share of podium finishes and great qualifying rounds. After spending two seasons as a Williams F1 test driver, he delivered four seasons of respectable performance finishing as high as 4th in the drivers’ championship in 2014. He had nine podium appearances for the team and one fastest lap.
There were times of brilliance from Bottas that had many on the grid saying he was the real thing and his future looked bright, he just needed a top ride. At Williams, unfortunately, he was not going to have that chance but late last year, his moment came with Mercedes filling a vacant seat in the form of Nico Rosberg.
For Valtteri, time was running out and there were moments when his career seemed like it could be slipping the way of fellow Finn, Heikki Kovalainen, His teammate, veteran Felipe Massa, was running relatively well against Valtteri and I wondered at the time if he really was as good as everyone said he was. Surely he would blow Massa into the weeds if he were that much better, right?
In fairness, Bottas did out-pace Massa in aggregate but there were moments that seemed uncontrolled and slightly erratic from him while Massa remained solid and finished higher in the race than Valtteri. There were collisions and mechanicals but in the end, he did win in the battle of teammates.
Bottas was no stranger to winning, he’d won the GP3 series but it took over 80 grands prix to finally win his first race this weekend in Russia, a track he likes very much. As I watched Valtteri move away from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in the first stint, I recalled why this was a man who many believe to be capable of winning races and titles. He drove an impeccable race and had no issues with being hounded late in the race by a 4-time champion in Vettel.
Mercedes wanted to replace Rosberg with a driver who was capable of scoring points and wins if Lewis didn’t and in Russia, that’s exactly what they got. It’s a long season and time will tell how well Bottas will do but in Russia, I saw a man who truly drove like a champion and showed that his time at Williams was all about honing his skills and perhaps he was even bumping up against the ceiling at the team which prompted a few less-than-stellar driving moments.
Maybe the lack of a car capable of winning at Williams was starting to hamper Valtteri’s progress and the move to Mercedes could unleash another growth and honing of his skills? He may not beat Lewis Hamilton in the championship standings this season but what he may gain is a feel for a race-winning car and the final fine-tuning of his race craft will begin in earnest. He may begin putting the finishing touches on his craft and become the complete title-winning driver many feel he is. The next Mika Hakkinen if you will.
There’s a tiger in the soul of Valtteri and the first time I saw it was in the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2014 when the team told Massa to let Bottas past him as he was quicker and Massa refused to comply. Bottas was told not to attack Massa in order to allow Felipe to get past Magnussen. Valtteri’s reply? “Then tell him to go through, I have more pace”.
It’s this spirit that prompted me to suggest that he may not be a pushover at Mercedes and given that he has a one-year contract, he needs to perform well. As such, the team orders in Bahrain were understandable for Valtteri as he was slower than Lewis and the team result was something he grasps very well given he’d been through this scenario in 2014 at Williams.
I hope I’m right on this hunch about Bottas. I hope we are starting to see the next Finnish driver to do well in F1. If he beats Lewis this year, then his stock will raise immeasurably and so it should. If he keeps his Russian GP performance going all year long, I think Lewis, Sebastian and Kimi will all have a hard time beating him. What if Mercedes replaced a world champion with another instead of an also-ran to support Lewis?
My money is still on Lewis, don’t get me wrong. You don’t win three titles and forget how to win. I think Russia was one of those anomaly races for Lewis and I fully expect he’ll be back in Spain but could we see some team orders later this year that do get a little stickier between the two?