Upbeat about Bottas

It would be unfair to assume that Valtteri Bottas’s role in his new team, Mercedes, would only be to keep team-mate Lewis Hamilton on his toes. It shouldn’t come as a surprise if Bottas does to Hamilton what the latter did to Fernando Alonso 10 years ago at McLaren. It is not for nothing that they say in motorsport, ‘When you want to win, hire a Finn’.

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Valtteri Bottas... the right replacement for Nico Rosberg at Mercedes.   -  Getty Images

Getty Images

Valtteri Bottas with Lewis Hamilton. The Finn has given enough indications that he is not just a good driver, but a potentianl champion. He should give the three-time World champion a run for his money.   -  Getty Images

Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement from Formula One, days after winning the World Championship was quite unprecedented in the sport. The German not only walked out of a multi-million-dollar contract but also gave up one of the most prized seats on the F1 grid.

Mercedes completely dominated the last three seasons, winning everything in sight and no team came even remotely close to challenging the German manufacturer for the title. So, little did the team or the F1 fraternity expect that the biggest challenge to Mercedes would be from within its stable.

With almost every driver calling Mercedes in the hope of winning the seat vacated by Rosberg, the team faced a serious challenge in its preparations for a fourth straight title in 2017.

Despite its financial muscle and having a race-winning, if not title-winning, seat at its disposal, Mercedes took close to 50 days before settling on Valtteri Bottas to fill the vacant seat.

The 27-year-old Finn and Pascal Wehrlein, Mercedes’ junior driver, were the favourites for the seat from day one, as the Mercedes team boss, Toto Wolff, revealed in December.

For starters, Wolff is part of the management group of Bottas, and for the last three years, Williams has been using Mercedes engines. This meant Mercedes had all the data it needed on Bottas.

Though F1 teams claim that they have no pecking order as far as their drivers are concerned, it is very obvious that every team has a hierarchy pointing to who its No. 1 driver is. For Mercedes, it has been Lewis Hamilton since 2013 and rightly so, for the Briton is the fastest driver on the grid.

However, the mercurial Hamilton needed a strong No. 2 driver to keep him on his toes, and Rosberg played the role brilliantly. On his day, the German was fast; he was consistent too. He was also capable of capitalising on any possible weakness Hamilton displayed to ensure that the team earned maximum points in each race.

In the junior category, the Finn won the GP3 title in his maiden attempt in 2011 before spending one year as a reserve driver for Williams in 2012, driving on Fridays (free practice). Bottas was so impressive as a reserve driver that he soon got a race seat at Williams.

Since making his F1 debut in 2013, Bottas has been solid for Williams, eking out, more often than not, the best results that the car merited. But his lack of flamboyance like Max Verstappen meant that he was labelled as a safe, but not spectacular driver.

However, to expect Bottas to only keep pushing Hamilton would be unfair to one of the most talented drivers on the grid. Last year, the Finn out-qualified Felipe Massa 17-4 and outscored him in the three years they were together at Williams. Though Massa is not as good as he was in 2008, when he came close to winning the World title, the Brazilian is a fairly good benchmark, and Bottas came off with flying colours against him.

More importantly, the Finn is non-controversial and has managed to hide his frustrations despite Williams gradually sliding down the order since 2014 when it finished third in the standings.

In 2015, Bottas’s performances dipped, but he was almost on the verge of replacing his compatriot Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari before negotiations broke down. Bottas, who said that the constant speculation about his future had distracted him, came back strongly in 2016 to out-perform Massa. (Massa recently made a turnaround to return to Williams just two months after retiring from Formula One after Bottas moved over to Mercedes.)

Just when Bottas seemed resigned to another season at Williams after Ferrari had renewed Raikkonen’s contract in July, he got the chance to show his capability in a top team.

Bottas has immense car control and is capable of nursing his tyres. He rarely makes mistakes and is disciplined when overtaking. Importantly, if one were to look at Rosberg’s weaknesses, overtaking and driving in wet conditions would be on top. But these are areas where Bottas does well, and he has given enough indications that he is not just a good driver, but a potential champion.

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Bottas does to Hamilton what the latter did to Fernando Alonso 10 years ago at McLaren. It is not for nothing that they say in motorsport, ‘When you want to win, hire a Finn’.

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