Robbed of a seasonal first win in Baku by a rarely unfortunate debris pick-up, Mercedes-AMG’s Flying Finn has not failed to deliver in the initial outings of the 2018 season.
Having kicked off the campaign on a low with Australia’s qualifying accident, he subsequently struggled to make up places in the Melbourne race due to Mercedes’ characteristic dirty air troubles, leading to his Power Unit overheating. But the retaliation from that has been remarkable nevertheless: he was seven tenths of a second off a Bahrain victory which only Sebastian Vettel’s miracle 40-lap Soft stint could deny. When Lewis Hamilton admittedly “underperformed” down in 4th at Shanghai, he was 2nd once again, unable to restrain Ricciardo’s almighty charge on brand new Soft tyres, but equally capable of pulling out a class move on Finnish rival Kimi Räikkönen to bring home 18 points.
A third runner-up finish followed the ill-fated Azerbaijan race, completing Mercedes’ first one-two triumph at last week’s Spanish Grand Prix.
With this overall picture in mind, we can say the two main reasons why Valtteri Bottas has not yet won a single race in 2018 are just poor strategy calls – outsmarted by Ferrari in Bahrain and Red Bull in China - or sheer misfortune – the Baku calamity.
But the most impressive feature of his season start can be found in pace: he was just 0.1 seconds off repeating last year’s pole in Bahrain, and another one tenth better than his teammate. Ferrari were much more dominant in Shanghai qualifying, gathering a half-a-second advantage, but Bottas could still place his Silver Arrow 3rd on the grid, Hamilton lined up alongside him again by a matter of fifty milliseconds. Hamilton’s second and first place in the last two qualifying sessions make it a 3-2 advantage for the reigning champion, but Valtteri has always kept the gap under two tenths: it was 160 milliseconds in Baku, it was just 40 milliseconds in Barcelona. Those results mean he boasts the second lowest average teammate deficit of the whole grid’s qualifying (or the joint lowest, if you like): thus far, only Stroll has been outqualified by a narrower margin than Bottas on average (+0.017s versus +0.018s, substantially identical).
And it’s not only a matter of qualifying hotlaps either. Jumped by Vettel in the early stages of the race and spending until the Virtual Safety Car to fight his way back into second place, Bottas was only about two tenths off Hamilton’s race pace last weekend, the very Grand Prix where Mercedes were able to exploit the full potential of their W09 to a pre-2017 style domination. As he himself commented, “there were many things that affected” his twenty seconds gap to the race winner (via Motorsport.com), one of those being the aforementioned battle for 2nd place.
Other times he was even quicker than his teammate, as in Bahrain or China, where his pace was so blistering as to devour Vettel’s three seconds lead in just one lap and complete an early undercut to take the provisional lead. Without Red Bull’s strategical masterstroke made possible by a late Safety Car, that would have been the perfect race for Bottas and Mercedes: “It was perfect timing from the team. I think it felt it was my quickest stop I’ve had with the team. So, everything just went really well. Good out-lap. So, we knew it was possible”, the Finn stated after the race.
Said achievements lead to his third place in the standings before the Monaco Grand Prix, 37 points far from the top, which, with sixteen races still to go, is not enough to put him out of title contention already. And he would possess even more than 58 points if the two DHL Fastest Lap Awards he collected so far (Bahrain, Baku) were points-relevant. His ten points lead to national rival Räikkönen is one more noticeable feature.
On account of all this, while he may not (or not yet) have the aggressiveness and sheer finetuning precision the two title rivals have always shown, Valtteri Bottas is definitely upping his game.
And the fact that “There have been no weekends that I have been way off the pace, like there were a few last year” (Motorsport.com), his constant proximity to the very protagonists of the championship, is the best surprise the opening five rounds of the 2018 season have gifted