This feature was written following Valtteri Bottas’ victory at the Australian Grand Prix 2019.
In Lewis Hamilton’s 12-year F1 career to date, he has bettered world champion team-mates – Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg – and kept a couple of Finnish drivers at bay, in Heikki Kovalainen and Valtteri Bottas.
Each partnership during Hamilton’s time at McLaren and Mercedes, has had its drama and controversy – the underlying issue seemingly being that Hamilton is the favourite.
No driver dreamt of coming second, but is Valtteri Bottas the latest victim to Hamilton after his disappointing season last year which demoted him to number two status at Mercedes?
A history of drama
Alonso left McLaren at the end of 2007 following the famous year of drama, scandal and controversy to join Renault. Hamilton’s next team-mate was Kovalainen who left for Lotus after two years issuing a warning to his successor, Jenson Button, that McLaren is more McHamilton.
Although their relationship wasn’t as awkward as with Alonso, Button arrived at McLaren with the same number of world titles as Hamilton at the time: one. So there were enough moments of tension and tantrums from the off.
Reflecting on the McLaren years, Button says: “If you ask me, [Hamilton] was finding it difficult to get a handle on the fact that it was our team now.”
Up next was Nico Rosberg, who spent four years with Hamilton at Mercedes – ending in another severed relationship by the end of it. Following three years of being beaten, Rosberg eventually became a world champion by 2016, before deciding he would never be able to repeat the feat.
But for Bottas, all was reversed on Sunday with a surprise win in Melbourne at the Australian Grand Prix, after spending months channelling the negativity into fuel for the fire, resulting in the best performance of his career.
Victory from the off
“I just remember his early years in Formula 3 when he was the benchmark and he would destroy everyone, that was lost last year” says Toto Wolff, Mercedes team principal.
The polite, pleasant, and mild-mannered Valtteri Bottas took the opportunity to put his critics back in their place and remind everyone – including the team – what he’s capable of.
“To whom it may concern, f*** you.” These words were spoken loud and clear on the Finnish driver’s team radio when he took the chequered flag in Melbourne, conquering the first race of the new Formula 1 season.
He did destroy everyone, including five-time world champion Lewis Hamilton as soon as the five lights went out.
Bold statement? Yes. Dramatic statement? Not really. His driving was calm, and his words were firm and fair – something he had been meaning to say for a long time.
Payback for what?
Bottas’ new race engineer Riccardo Musconi congratulated him on the win saying it’s “payback from last year”. One could read into that ‘payback for a bad luck and mistake strewn season’, but it goes deeper than that.
Could it be interpreted as payback for being demoted to Lewis Hamilton’s domestique? Mercedes could argue that Bottas himself put himself there by not producing results and gaining enough valuable points. Yet, the height of the of demotion was witnessed in a controversial decision when team orders were imposed on him at the Russian Grand Prix when he was producing the results, it was just too late.
In Sochi, he took pole fair and square, led the race, and following difficult strategic decisions with Lewis Hamilton’s blistered tyres as well as attacks from the rivals behind, he was ordered by his world champion team-mate’s race engineer, James Vowles, who said “Valtteri, it’s James”, to move aside and let Hamilton collect the winning points and bask in what should’ve been the Finn’s glory.
As if that wasn’t a big enough blow, four races earlier at the Hungarian Grand Prix, Toto Wolff said Bottas been a “sensational wingman” to Hamilton.
Hearing the remark, the mood drastically changed. His response was in a separate interview, “firstly, that hurts”, then muttered “I think we need to speak after this race”. Later, Mercedes issued a statement to clarify they meant he was a sensational wingman “in the race, not the season”.
That wasn’t the final straw. The Finn’s performance for the remaining races worsened. By the season finale in Abu Dhabi, when Red Bull drivers Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo attacked for the podium spots in the final laps, he left the door wide open without hesitation, giving a clear indication that his mindset had changed, he was fed up of a frustrating season, and his enthusiasm had run dry.
But there was more. His seat at Mercedes was under threat. Esteban Ocon who drives under the Mercedes academy lost his Force India seat for 2019, but Wolff assured he would have a spot on the grid by 2020, currently with no specific team.
When Bottas’ contract was negotiated, Wolff added some conditions: if he didn’t show what he’s capable of this year, and produce a handful of race wins, his optional contract extension would be removed.
As any athlete whose season has been a difficult one, Bottas went searching for answers during the winter break, in the form of: cycling, running, weight training, rallying in the Arctic, playing ice hockey, drinking vodka, growing a beard and spending time with his wife and Dalmatian puppies.
He went as far away from F1 as possible, seeking redemption and to inject some form of happiness back into his life.
Bottas isn’t the only driver to breathe in fresh non-fuel-contaminated air and reassess his pathway, many have taken a break from the F1 circus, but he is one of the few who managed to do it over a four-month break. Wolff says it did him the world of good: “With the second half of last season he was written off, but he bounces back in the most dominant way.”
He re-charged and digested the criticism surrounding him. In February during pre-season testing in Barcelona, Valtteri Bottas 2.0 walked into the paddock. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, he’d had a full night’s sleep, for four months.
He came back more determined to go out and achieve what many suggested he can’t. Wolff says: “When he came back after winter he said: ‘I’m back.”
“I think he really worked hard and enjoyed the rallying he did this winter. You can see the extra point which nobody gave much notice to, become important at the end, and Valtteri was bang off the line.”
Since F1 announced there would be an extra point up for grabs for the fastest lap which came alive on the final lap.
Bottas’ engineer told him to avoid taking any risks and they would collect the 25 winning points, but that wasn’t enough. The Finn wasn’t leaving with fewer than 26.
Hamilton wanted it too. He said to his race engineer Pete Bonington “I need that point Bono.”
But Bottas was giving nothing away to his previously dominant team-mate.
Valtteri Bottas impressed his team, his boss, his rivals, and Formula 1 fans. The support he received was rightly deserved as a driver who succeeded after a rotten season. But was this victory a one-off or is Valtteri Bottas 2.0 really engraving his name in the team?
More importantly, will this resurgence be considered healthy competition by Hamilton? Or has Bottas just dug his own grave?