OPINION l Far from a ‘Last Dance’: Why this could be Bottas’ last year with Mercedes

Keeping the questionable Finnish driver is a luxury Mercedes has been able to afford. But not for long

By Yuri Coghe
@yuricoghe
Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas has 9 wins and 47 podiums in 79 races with Mercedes (Photo: Valtteri Bottas/Twitter)

Valtteri Bottas is starting his fifth season with Mercedes, and it feels like it could be his last one.

But way different from Michael’s Jordan 1998 ‘Last Dance’ with the Chicago Bulls, the Finish driver has barely hit the floor, let alone displayed any eye-catching steps.

After four years driving the best car in the grid, he failed to achieve double-digit victories, ‘only’ tieing his name to nine F1 wins. Within the same period, Lewis Hamilton rose to the top of the podium no less than a whopping 42 times.

If Bottas once looked like a promising talent, it’s been clear for a while that he should be kept far away from a championship-contending car.

The 2018 season said it all. He became the only driver in that year’s three best-performing teams to not cross the finish line first at least once.

Numbers are not all that is to it. In 2020, Bottas spent the whole season getting exposed pretty much in every overtaking situation, whether he was the one defending or attacking.

The most degrading moment came at the Sakhir Grand Prix. George Russell, normally a Williams driver, was replacing Lewis Hamilton after the defending-champion tested positive for COVID-19. And he almost won the race had Mercedes not messed up not one, but two of his pit stops.

In the process, his overtake on Bottas made for one of the moves of the season.

If you’re driving with the same team for four years, it’s not a good look to be out-performed by someone who just got the keys to the car a few days before.

So, why does Bottas keeps getting contract extensions and has renewed his deal with the silver arrows once again for the 2021 season?

It’s quite simple: for Mercedes, it’s as comfortable as the other side of a pillow.

They have a perfect arrangement in place. Quite possibly, the German team has the best car and the best driver in F1 history.

Surely, it should be more than enough to clinch both drivers’ and constructors’ championships at the end of 2021 to extend their own records to eight in-a-row. As long as who’s driving the other car does a half-decent or perhaps even mediocre job.

If this B-driver doesn’t stir up trouble or any kind of bad blood with the big teammate star, which is indeed Bottas’ case, it’s a bonus Mercedes will gladly accept. Especially after the turbulent Hamilton-Nico Rosberg rivalry that went on before the German retired as the 2016 champ.

But, in Mercedes’ best interests, this very same arrangement has to change sooner than later.

It was extremely difficult to negotiate a contract extension with Hamilton at the end of 2020. The deal eventually got finished but is only valid for a year. The fact that the 36-year-old Briton is constantly talking about pursuing other passions other than racing does not help ease the situation.

Russell is not getting any younger himself. Mercedes sees its young star as a future world champion, but keeping the 23-year-old ‘on loan’ at Williams for a third year in 2021 might not be the best for his development.

Keeping a driver as questionable as Bottas for five seasons has been a luxury only a team so dominant as Mercedes could afford. They don’t care about their second driver bringing zero entertainment value to F1 – except for some occasional laughs – as long as they keep winning both trophies year after year.

However, things are changing. The big 2021 rule changes are expected to shuffle up the pecking order. Then, there’s the question mark on how long will Hamilton remain in F1. And, finally, the eventual necessity to give Russell’s development the care it’s been asking for.

Mercedes has to adjust. And it might mean that Bottas’ long overstayed welcome in a top team may finally come to an end.