You have to feel for Valtteri Bottas. When he signed for Mercedes in 2017 – it must have felt like a dream come true. The fastest car in Formula 1, the most successful team, a championship winning package – and yet, coming into his fifth year at the team, he’s mostly had a string of second place finishes on his CV, constantly overshadowed by his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton.
And finishing second is not to be sniffed at, but you ask any racing driver where they want to finish, and 10 times out of 10 it’ll be ‘the top step.’
So has this now become a case of wrong place, wrong time for the Finn?
It’s difficult to answer that because it’s incredibly hard to imagine F1 without his team-mate. He’s helped shape the championship into what it is now, on and off the track, he’s smashed more titles than I can remember – he is about to become the most decorated driver in F1 history, if he wins his eighth world title.
With the Briton all but signing the contract to say he’s staying on at Mercedes for a few more years, where does that leave Bottas?
The 31-year-old hasn’t much helped himself this week, after posting on social media that he was putting his Mercedes GTS up for sale, leading to fresh speculation about his future at the team, despite it being to raise money for a karting circuit in Lahti.
It added a bit more fuel to the fire, with one fan remembering a similar thing happened with Sebastian Vettel who sold his Ferrari collection shortly after announcing he was signing for Aston Martin F1.
Bottas, who has a tough start to the season, already sits behind Max Verstappen in the Red Bull in the standings with a 44-point deficit to leader Hamilton. So who could replace him if he leaves?
RED BULL’S MAX VERSTAPPEN
Max Verstappen is a natural go to, if we’re talking about who can replace Bottas, however away from the fine print in his contract meaning potentially he could head to Mercedes, would he want to? At the moment, Verstappen has the second best package on the grid, and has already proved he’s an incredibly talented driver.
But realistically, with Hamilton staying at Mercedes, It wouldn’t make sense for Verstappen to make the move just yet. The Dutchman would come in as the second driver to Hamilton, who has been with Mercedes for nearly a decade, winning six world titles with them.
Right now, Verstappen is the number one driver at Red Bull – he’s been affiliated with the team since 2014, before being promoted to the top team in 2016, with a mid-season swap with Daniil Kvyat that saw him become the youngest ever race winner.
And having made his debut in the championship at just 17 years old, he’s already in his seventh season, and admitted: “I have a contract at Red Bull until 2023, and I am very happy where I am. There is no reason to change.”
And in some ways, you have to believe him. If he comes in alongside Hamilton, he could lose his stature as the best driver in the team. If he stays at Red Bull and beats Hamilton, he becomes the only driver to have beaten Mercedes in seven years of dominance. To me, that seems a much tastier choice.
WILLIAMS’ GEORGE RUSSELL:
Arguably the most viable replacement for Bottas, if indeed he decides to leave Williams when his contract is up for renewal at the end of the season, with some reporting they thought Mercedes could even bring the Briton in mid-season, something that looks highly doubtful will happen.
Mercedes have denied this is the case, with Toto Wolff, the team-principal saying that “unless he [Bottas] gets flu and can’t drive he’s going to be in that car”.
Wolff joked that they don’t intend to play “musical chairs” like a certain rival might – a nod to Red Bull’s occasional revolving door, swapping drivers mid-season as they did in both 2016 and 2019.
Of course not forgetting he’s an actual junior driver for the team, Russell has been waiting in the wings patiently after getting a taste at the front when he almost won deputising for Hamilton at the Sakhir Grand Prix last season.
Though there were some concerns he had blown his shot in Imola when colliding with the Finn after a high-speed crash, it was a concern that Mercedes dismissed, with the Williams driver remaining a strong contender for the seat.
ALPINE’S ESTEBAN OCON:
Ocon has arguably been waiting in the wings even longer than Russell, so long that he actually forfeited his role as a Mercedes junior driver in order to join Renault on a two-year deal.
Despite sitting out 2019 as reserve driver for Mercedes, the Frenchman has impressed in his second year with the team with three points finishes out of four, outperforming two-time champion team-mate Fernando Alonso.
And Wolff hasn’t ruled the 24-year-old out. “Ocon is in the second year of a two-year contract with Renault or Alpine F1 this year, Russell is with Williams this year. So there are some variations for 2022,” he said.
“But,” he added, “until then our full support goes to Valtteri and Lewis.”
MERCEDES EQ FE’S STOFFEL VANDOORNE:
If you were a betting person who didn’t know how to bet, you would pick Vandoorne, who currently races in Formula E, and is Mercedes’ test and reserve driver at the team.
The Belgium made his Formula 1 race debut in 2016 in Bahrain, replacing the injured two-time world champion Fernando Alonso.
Vandoorne then remained with McLaren until October 2018 – before making a move over to the all electric-series to race the HWA Racelab, now Mercedes EQ Formula E Team, keeping his strong links to F1.
“And I’m still involved with their [Mercedes] F1 side as a reserve driver and simulator driver. This is really my main focus and my target right now is to try and try and win championships here.”
Whoever replaces Bottas, be it next year, in two years, or however long into the future – Wolff has no shortage of talent waiting patiently behind the Finn for a chance.
However, as it stands there doesn’t look like much will change in 2021, with Wolff saying: “We will evaluate in the middle of the year whether there will be a change in 2022. It is surely too early now to talk about scenarios for 2022.”