Around halfway through Valtteri Bottas’s fifth year as a Mercedes driver, the world learned it would be his last.
|Beat team mate in qualifying||5/22|
|Beat team mate in race||3/17|
|Laps spent ahead of team mate||173/1105|
Had his performances up to that point been at a significantly lower level compared to past seasons, and had the team therefore chosen to drop him? Or was there a different calculation at work? The signs pointed towards the latter.
Yes, there were a couple of conspicuous lows over the opening races for Bottas. Around a damp Imola, he was nowhere, and had already gone a lap down when his race ended in a collision with George Russell, the driver who was widely expected to replace him (correctly, as it turned out). At Baku he gradually slipped backwards and finished out of the points.
But the rest of the time he was in the mix, as in previous seasons. Close enough to Lewis Hamilton’s pace to occasionally out-qualify him, but very seldom ahead of him on race day. And unlucky enough to lose out on one of the few weekends when he was decisively ahead – Monaco, where his race was ended by a shambolic pit stop without which he would surely have finished second, six places ahead of his team mate.
A slow pit stop had taken him out of contention in Bahrain as well, though he took his first of 11 podium finishes. Hamilton was clearly the quicker of the two, establishing a trend.
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From pole in Portugal Bottas was passed by Hamilton and Max Verstappen on his way to third again, which he repeated in Spain after spending the opening part of the race stuck behind Charles Leclerc.
In France Sergio Perez kept Bottas off the podium, but he was back on the podium at the next race, the Styrian Grand Prix, despite collecting a grid penalty for a bizarre spin in the pits. He improved to second at the next race (Hamilton picked up damage) and added another podium at Silverstone, losing ground at the starts and finishing behind Leclerc.
Then came Hungary, where he joined Hamilton on the front row but triggered hefty shunt at the start. Over the summer break that followed, Mercedes committed to replacing him with Russell, and the announcement was made soon after the season resumed.
Perhaps boosted by the newfound certainty over his future, but more likely thanks to the gains Mercedes with a W12 chassis which was not a friendly beast at the start of the season, Bottas delivered a better performance over the second part of the year, without the notable lows of the opening rounds.Zandvoort and, much more impressively, at Monza, despite a penalty for a power unit change. Bottas claimed pole position for the second sprint qualifying race of the year and led Verstappen home, then was relegated to 20th for the grand prix. He recovered to third place after the title contenders took each other off, and might have had a crack at the race-leading McLaren pair had Perez not refused to relinquish the position he kept over Bottas by cutting the track.
Engine penalties were a theme of the coming races. He had another in Russia but rose to fifth place. At Istanbul, where it was finally his team mate’s turn to take a penalty, Bottas stuck it on pole position and drove away on a slippery track. Two more pole positions followed in the next three races but in Mexico he left the door open for Verstappen before being tipped into a spin by Daniel Ricciardo. His Brazil pole was the product of a fine sprint race performance to wrest victory from Verstappen, though in the grand prix he gave up the lead at the start and came third.
While Bottas proved a valuable ally to Hamilton for much of the season, over the final three races he faded out of the picture. He was unable to contain Verstappen in Qatar, then collected a puncture, and in Saudi Arabia he dropped out of contention for victory thanks to the early red flag. More engine problems kept him away from the sharp end in the finale where he, like his team mate, was disadvantaged by the contentious circumstances of the late restart.
Bottas’ final season as a Mercedes driver was arguably not his weakest, yet the team’s decision to look elsewhere was hard to fault. With the promising junior talent of Russell on its books, and Hamilton potentially committing to no more than two more years (the events of Yas Marina notwithstanding), now was clearly the right time to make a change.
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What’s your verdict on Valtteri Bottas’s 2021 season? Which drivers do you feel he performed better or worse than? Have your say in the comments. Add your views on the other drivers in the comments.
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