The Finn was brought in as understudy to the four-time world champion – but he now leads the F1 drivers’ standings. Can he go all the way?
Valtteri Bottas, what have you got? Do you have the dog in you required to hound Lewis Hamilton out of his stride? Weren’t you brought in as the antidote to internecine warfare? Do Mercedes want a return to 2016, the last time a teammate went toe to toe with Lewis Hamilton? Nico Rosberg came out on top but was so burned by the experience it ended his career. Team principal Toto Wolff and the Merc high command spent the season in a state of fraught agitation. Questions, questions.
Barcelona marks Formula One’s re-entry into Europe, the sport’s traditional heartland. It was here three years ago that Hamilton and Rosberg took each other out on the opening lap to reset the rules of engagement and the terms of their relationship. Suffice to say, any fellowship previously enjoyed perished in the wreckage after Rosberg shoved the quicker Hamilton wide onto the grass as he attempted to pass.
Then, like now, Hamilton trailed in the title race, if more profoundly. Rosberg won the first four races of the season with Hamilton suffering mechanical issues in Bahrain and China. Hamilton was desperate to strike back in Spain, started from pole but lost the lead through turn one. Oh, oh. Did he not like that? An engine mode issue began to slow Rosberg sufficiently to invite the Hamilton attack. Boom.
Hamilton prevailed in mid-season but the technical gremlins returned to bury him. Though he won the final four races it was not enough to prevent Rosberg taking the crown. The duel was visceral, dogged, bitter, nasty and in the final race at Abu Dhabi downright ugly as Hamilton, needing to overcome a 12-point deficit, defied team orders to deliberately slow the race at the front and force second-placed Rosberg back into the pack of chasing cars. It didn’t work. Hamilton was unapologetic. Rosberg won and then, half dead from the intensity, walked.
Hamilton has been the course many times. His experience told him not to go too hard after Bottas on the first lap in Baku when more aggressive defensive moves through the opening two corners might have seen his teammate in the wall. Afterwards he conceded that he had been too friendly. “I basically gave it to him,” he said. That won’t happen again. Though only four races in, Hamilton has seen enough to recognise the threat brought by Bottas, who in his third year at the team has shed the cloak of deference and is beginning to state his case.
Comparing his performance to last year Bottas had this to say: “I’ve been maybe a bit more direct, and maybe you can say aggressive, in terms of big changes we’ve been making in the practice and what kind of set-up directions we’ve been taking. As the years go by you gain confidence in knowing exactly what you need from the car and how you feel the car will be quicker for you.”
In other words he is imposing himself. The camaraderie thus far maintained between the two will count for zip should this continue, making Wolff a hostage to fortune.
“We are lucky that they have a very good relationship. They get on with each other, there is not a lot of games in the background. And I’m very happy about that,” Wolff said. “But we have to be conscious. We have seen relationships deteriorate. Both of the drivers, the respect needs to stay there. We’re very strong as a team and we wouldn’t allow the relationship between drivers to deteriorate to a point that it has a negative effect on the team. If that would ever be the case, again after Nico and Lewis, we would issue yellow and red cards.”
The concept of teammates has always been the paradox at the heart of the modern Formula One. It runs counter to the nature of the job, which is all about winning. These boys might feign diplomacy, but when it comes to it, reason flies out of the exhaust pipe with the rest of the wasted energy. The faux alliance will not be worth tuppence should the drivers continue to trade wins.
The record four one-twos posted in as many races by Mercedes is in part a function of Ferrari’s failure to harness their own considerable resources. The return to the long straights and technical corners of Barcelona, where they were comfortably the quickest car during winter testing, might offer scope to hook up a whole weekend. As will the engine upgrade introduced two races earlier than planned. “We are behind in the championship and we have to catch up,” team principal Mattia Binotto said. “We made a big team effort to bring these developments forward.”