Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas is entering a potentially career-defining season in Formula 1.
The Finn’s seat at Mercedes is under serious threat for the future with George Russell seemingly a shoo-in for the Silver Arrows from 2022 onwards given his impressive form for Williams plus his stand-in heroics in Sakhir last year.
So after finishing second in the standings for the second consecutive season, it appears Bottas is standing in the last chance saloon?
Bottas’ recent exploits for Mercedes is a game of ‘Spot the pattern’ – win the first race of the season, have a numerical suffix added to your name – will it be Bottas 4.0 this term – fade towards the end of the year and end up closer to the cars behind than his team-mate in front.
Indeed, last season he took victory in Austria, was given the name ‘Bottas 3.0’ and yet failed to build on his promising start, finishing 124 points behind team-mate Lewis Hamilton and just nine ahead of Max Verstappen.
But is it all his fault? Last season was one of misfortune for Bottas. He looked strong at Imola, for example, before a large piece of debris became stuck in the W11’s floor assembly. He also came unstuck with tyre issues in both Silverstone races, with the failure in the British Grand Prix the most spectacular.
Bottas can at least point to his stellar qualifying performances as a lifeline, regularly on par with Hamilton, who is undeniably one of the best qualifiers in F1 history.
Yet there were plenty of examples where Bottas felt the pinch, including a dismal performance in the Turkish GP in which he spun six times at a time when his title aspirations were hanging by a thread. His run of 14th, eighth, eighth in one of the greatest F1 cars ever made was unacceptable.
As everybody is aware, F1 is a results business. If you cannot get the job done, you are not going to be around for long because there is always someone waiting for one of the most precious jobs in motorsport.
In a dominant Mercedes team, Bottas has scored nine wins from 79 races since his switch from Williams ahead of the 2017 season. Three of those were in his first year at the team, four in 2019 and just two last year.
Compared to Hamilton, the numbers make for excruciating reading. The seven-time champion has won almost five times the amount of his team-mate with 42 in their time together.
Even Verstappen, who for the large part has driven a middleweight Red Bull compared to the heavyweight champion Mercedes, has secured nine race wins since the beginning of the 2017 season. Put simply, it isn’t good enough from the Finn.
Alarmingly, and arguably, a certain Russell was only a pit-stop blunder and a puncture away from being one win from one outing…
The young pretender to the Mercedes throne is the real issue for Bottas. Until last season, there was nothing to make him squirm over his future at the team.
Russell, though, was a spin behind a safety car away from a stunning season with Williams, with the Briton aiding the team’s overall resurgence and sparkling in the limelight of qualifying.
At Sakhir, despite Bottas finishing ahead of his team-mate-for-the-weekend on track, the spectacular move into the turn six-seven-eight chicane that Russell put on Bottas underlined the predicament he is in.
Russell, at the moment, looks a certainty for a 2022 berth at the champions, with the signs looking ominous for Bottas.
What can save his seat? Of course, the seat does not yet belong to Russell, and an impressive season for Bottas would surely ensure he stays.
Mercedes has proven in the past it is not in the business of promoting junior drivers for no reason. Esteban Ocon was released despite looking promising, as was Pascal Wehrlein.
Red Bull has struggled to topple Mercedes with a single-car attack given the woes of its second driver since Daniel Ricciardo’s departure, a point that must surely play on Toto Wolff’s mind given Bottas does fare well compared to the team’s rivals.
Hamiton’s future could well come to Bottas’ rescue, with the Finn unlikely to be moved aside should the British driver not racee for Mercedes from 2022 onwards.
Bottas has the seat for now despite suggestions Russell is ready for the big time, but oh how he needs to make the most of this chance as it must surely be his last.