FORMULA 1 MOTORSPORT NEWS

Is Valtteri Bottas a true title contender?

“There was never a point that he wasn’t in the title fight,” Hamilton said as a matter of fact statement after Bottas’ win in Austria on Sunday. “I think it was only you guys [the media] who potentially suggested that he was never in the battle. I always assumed he still was, and this just shows he still is.

“When you look at the results, he’s also had a DNF, so he’s generally had a better season I would say so far.”

Hamilton v Bottas

Statistically, however, Bottas and Hamilton have been closer in the first half of the season than you might think. The Finn has finished ahead of his teammate at four of the nine grands prix this year and, if you were to give back the 15 points he lost when he retired from third place in Spain, Bottas would be level with Hamilton on 151 points.

In qualifying Bottas has been an average of 0.105s off Hamilton and has out-qualified the Brit on three occasions. Monaco is the anomaly that slightly skews the average from Hamilton’s side (it would be 0.256s without it), but the three-time champion’s struggles that weekend made Bottas’ third-place grid position all the more impressive.

It also highlights a common trend this year in that Bottas has been able to step up to the plate when Hamilton has struggled. Russia was a similar story, with Hamilton unable to get the car balanced front to rear while Bottas was able to drive around the issue and win the race. In Monaco, he had the same setup as Hamilton but was able to get more from it, which ultimately helped the team understand the issue it faced and take pole position at the following three races. Finally, his latest win in Austria was labelled by team chairman Niki Lauda as a result that “saved” Mercedes on a weekend when Hamilton’s chances were scuppered by a gearbox penalty.

Bottas needs to keep improving

Bottas’ performances this year have been all the more impressive given the late timing of his switch from Williams over the winter. The challenge of moving from one team to another should not be underestimated and the fact Bottas has integrated so well is a credit not only to his ability but the quality of the Mercedes team. In seven short months he has learned an awful lot and, crucially, he says he is still improving with every round.

“In F1 it is all about details,” Bottas explained after Sunday’s race. “It would take hours to talk about everything I have learned and developed. But it is the small things that matter when it comes to winning or losing.

“So many things, in terms of setting up the car, how to approach the weekend with that, and driving wise, being alongside Lewis. With Lewis as my team mate, it would be stupid not to learn something from him. He’s one of the best qualifiers ever in F1, and a three-time world champion, so for sure I’m watching every single time if there’s anything I can pick up, any track with the driving lines, etc.

“It’s just the amount of feedback I get from the team after each race, after each session, but especially the meetings we have a few days after the race. We go through every single bit that they think I can do better, just really direct feedback. This is a team of winners, and they know how to do it. It enables me to learn so much, and I’m just keen to work hard and get better, because as long as you want to improve, it never stops. So it’s really exciting.”

The tricky thing for Bottas now is to find that extra 0.105s per lap and start out-qualifying Hamilton on a regular basis. Austria was a good start, but Hamilton’s gearbox penalty meant he went into the session compromised. In Q2 he set his time on the super-soft tyres so that he could start the race on a different compound to his rivals, but he admitted on Sunday evening that he lost some of the rhythm of the session by having to deal with the associated balance change that comes with switching compounds midway through qualifying.

Had Hamilton not had a gearbox penalty hanging over him, he would have used the ultra-softs throughout (like Bottas did) and may have recovered more — or perhaps all — of the 0.173s that separated him and his teammate. That’s not to say Bottas didn’t deserve pole, more that Hamilton is likely to bounce back in Silverstone and Bottas needs to be ready to up his game once more.

Bottas needs to build momentum

The next two races before the summer break will be crucial for Bottas’ championship campaign. Austria proved how quickly perceptions can change, but equally if Bottas suffers two straight defeats to Hamilton at the next two rounds it would undo all of his hard work and make it increasingly hard for Mercedes not to gravitate towards Hamilton in the second half of the season.

Of course, Bottas doesn’t only have to overhaul Hamilton to become world champion, he also has to cut a 35-point gap to Sebastian Vettel. Much of that will depend on the relative performance of the Mercedes and Ferrari over the rest of the season, but it will be important for Bottas to get within 25 points of Vettel as soon as possible in order to capitalise on any race retirements. So far this year the No.5 Ferrari has finished every round, but Vettel is already on the last of his allocation of turbochargers and MGU-Hs before receiving a grid penalty. It’s therefore likely that both Mercedes drivers will have an opportunity to close the gap dramatically at some point this year and Bottas needs to be close enough to capitalise.

Perhaps one area where Bottas does have an edge on both title rivals is his mentality. We’ve seen Vettel’s short temper flare up twice in the past 12 months and Hamilton’s performances have always had the potential to fluctuate with his mood. Yet Bottas shows little emotion and that could allow him to capitalise if all the focus is on the increasingly fierce rivalry between Hamilton and Vettel. In 2007, Raikkonen took the title from underneath the noses of Hamilton and his warring McLaren teammate Fernando Alonso, and if Bottas can remain in contention heading into the final races he could create an upset. In the meantime, Bottas has vowed to forget about the potential glory of a title and grind out the necessary results.

“The fact is that to win the title you’ve got to make the most out of every single race weekend and get all the points available, be consistent, and when it’s possible to win, you need to win,” he said on Sunday night. “By making a thing about winning titles, it doesn’t change anything. You need to go race-by-race, or really session by session, lap by lap. That’s how it goes. I know as a fact that in theory, with the points, everything still will be in the fight. So that is good to know.”

According to the bookmakers, Bottas currently has a 16/1 shot at winning this year’s title while Hamilton and Vettel both share odds of 10/11. Given the current points situation and Hamilton and Vettel’s status as multiple world champions, those odds seem fair. If Bottas is to shorten them, he needs to continue to up his game at every round and prove he can put a run of wins together over the next few races. But from what we’ve seen so far this season, that is not beyond the realms of possibility.

Source: ESPN