The Valtteri Bottas challenge that never was
• Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas can't seem to dominate as the number one driver.
• He is confident he can beat team-mate Lewis Hamilton's pace, but fails to deliver consistently.
• The power balance at Mercedes is seldom challenged internally.
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Finnish is a strangely economical language. It seems to solely comprise a register of monosyllabic Neanderthal-like grunts, and therefore unlikely to contain a vernacular equivalent of a sophisticated term like déjà vu.
What is clear is that, when Valtteri Bottas starts an F1 season with a shock win of the opening race ahead of Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton, the motorsport press cannot resist conjuring up talk of a credible title challenge.
Last year, the memes about porridge, beards, and Bottas 2.0 nearly broke the internet, which became three-point-oh after he repeated the trick at Austria's 2020 season opener early in July.
Yet, barely two races later, it's become a predictable case of oh dear, when Hamilton hit his stride – and Bottas has been reduced to the nearly man. Again.
Whereas Hamilton builds a championship year by starting slowly – sometimes errantly and ending it with trademark invincibly – Bottas does the opposite.
Granted, it's easy to look second best when compared to the greatest driver of his generation. However, as an example, his lacklustre performance in Hungary last week was another reminder why Bottas at his best isn't good enough.
Admittedly he fluffed his start; although, with the performance advantage of this year's Mercedes echoing the chasm to its rivals it last enjoyed in the early turbo hybrid days, Bottas should have easily recovered to second place.
The team called the Fin in for a third pit stop in anticipation of him reeling in the two-stopping Max Verstappen while on 13-lap fresher tyres; setting up a classic duel in which Bottas had 21 seconds to catch and pass the Red Bull driver.
Hamilton was presented with the identical situation at the same track in 2019 – and succeeded, but Bottas failed.
Image: ANDREJ ISAKOVIC / AFP
At Monza last year, a blockbuster showdown played out as Hamilton mercilessly hounded Ferrari's Charles Leclerc as the latter doggedly fought for the most thrilling triumph of the season. As Hamilton's tyres eventually gave up, he let Bottas, then on seven lap-newer Pirellis than the Ferrari – through to catch and pass Leclerc.
But the risk-averse Fin could only watch and wilt away. He might have ascended the higher podium step afterwards, but there was no doubt over who was the lesser Mercedes driver that day.
The repeat of such events has, over time, cemented the perception of Bottas as a number two to his superstar team-mate as a reality; notably also in his own mind. When a driver cannot be first or second in a car with race-winning pace, then the label of underperformer is warranted.
So why does Mercedes keep him around?
Lewis Hamilton's last team-mate that had his measure was Nico Rosberg in 2016. Although both trophies ended up at Stuttgart that year, the team learnt that drivers taking points from each other is a rather tricky way of winning a championship.
Instead, the unspoken relationship of a lead driver paired with a supportive team-mate is touted as more harmonious, but similarly destructive in its own sinister way.
Here's why. The number two driver exists primarily as a buffer between his superior team-mate and other title rivals. If, on the day, the number one is eliminated from the race, it is up to the number two to salvage whatever points are available. Should he win, that victory is accepted by the team with relief rather than joy.
This power imbalance is seldom spoken of, and neither is it challenged; because in theory the highest a number two driver is expected to finish, is behind his team-mate; and who, as a duty-bound team player, he serves to protect but never threaten.
It nearly destroyed Rubens Barrichello at Ferrari as a lapdog to Michael Schumacher in the early 2000s; and it is equally painful to see how demoralising it is for the stoic Bottas.
He hollowly talks up his chances of beating Hamilton year after year, though already defeated by his lack of self-belief. (Not that Hamilton is unconquerable: Jenson Button outscored him from 2010 to 2012 as a McLaren team-mate by 672-6570).
Still, Bottas outraced Hamilton four times last year, although such outliers ultimately proved slender pickings against Hamilton's rich clutch of 11 victories.
Caveats such as Bottas being the faster driver "on a good day" or "when the car is perfect" only underline what separates the great drivers from the good ones, and which is that they excel in a wider window with more variables in play.
There are other shortcomings in Bottas' makeup, too. He is notoriously unassertive in wheel-to-wheel combat and a poor tyre manager, while outside the car he lacks charisma.
Image: ANDREJ ISAKOVIC / AFP
Compared to other Finnish F1 champions – such as Räikkönen, Häkkinen and Rosberg (Nico's dad), Bottas' absence of flamboyance seems to translate to a lack of killer instinct on track.
So dominant has the Mercedes been since 2014 that anybody driving one should be able to finish second in the championship with relative ease. Piloting the most dominant car of the decade, between 2017 and 2019, Bottas has placed 3rd, 5th and 2nd only once – in the championship standings.
Under laser-like scrutiny by their teams, competitors and the press, F1 drivers face criticism daily. Yet nothing stings more than a back-handed compliment from the boss.
After the 2018 Russian GP, where Bottas was requested to surrender to Hamilton, Toto Wolff labelled Bottas "a sensational wingman".