Without forgetting to account for his loyal sacrifices and occasional misfortunes, Valtteri Bottas’ latest season can doubtlessly be remembered as an underwhelming performance. The Finn has struggled to keep up with his top-class teammate in the second half of the year, something of which he had suffered in late 2017, too: the qualifying duel evolved to 15-6 in favour of Hamilton, whereas Bottas was only 1 down at the time of the 11th Grand Prix of the season in Hockenheim. The average gap in Saturday’s hot-lap increased accordingly: while Bottas had remarkably managed to keep it almost invisible in the first five rounds, the gap is attested at nearly two tenths at the completion of the campaign.
Race results make it even clearer, with an abysmal series of four consecutive fifth places – and only a couple of podiums in the whole Asian-American final leg – dropping the Finn down to 5th in the standings, this time largely defeated in the national comparison with Kimi Räikkönen. It goes without saying this is by far the worst finishing result for a Mercedes racer in the hybrid era.
Surely a part of this crisis must be put down to the German team’s giant tyre-management issues highlighted in the American rounds, with all the discussion about their suspicious wheel-rims taking place in the background, but if Hamilton equally managed to win six of the last eight races, it definitely cannot be the entire story.
What looks evident is that Bottas struggles to adapt as Mercedes develop their weapon through the course of the year to hit back at their rivals’ assaults: that has been the case for a couple of seasons now. While on one hand this can be explained with the development probably tending towards the main driver to focus on clinching the title battle, on the other the German team might not be satisfied only by Hamilton’s upswing once again and might need not just one but two blades to fend off a possibly tougher opposition next year. As a proof, Toto Wolff’s very recent words to Motorsport.com are: “Valtteri knows exactly where he needs to be next year. He needs to have all the bad luck gone and perform on a level with Lewis.
"That is what is needed for the 2020 year. He knows very well that, and he has that in him."
"Lewis improving – he added - means Valtteri needs to improve. […] "He needs a start where is right up there with Lewis and all the other drivers for the championship, that is what he needs."
"I think if that turns into a positive momentum that is actually driving for the championship, I think that Valtteri can win the championship."
Adding even more tension is the looming presence of ‘homemade’ Mercedes youngster Esteban Ocon in the background, working as development driver but ready to creep into a desired contention for a race seat maybe even during the course of the 2019 season, should Bottas fail to live up to said high expectations.
The Finn, however, is up to the job and capable of starting off with a bang, so new and unexpected possibilities could open for him in the coming year. It is all to be followed!