The F1 Circus put on a quite a show last week with successive days of headline making stories announcing drivers changing teams for 2021 and beyond. The first domino which started off this succession of events came from the news that Sebastian Vettel would be leaving Scuderia Ferrari, by mutual decision, at the end of the 2020 F1 Season. The day after this, news broke that Daniel Ricciardo would join McLaren…and this was all before the announcement that Carlos Sainz would partner Charles Leclerc at Scuderia Ferrari. Although, that piece of news was easily the worst kept secret in F1 for many years. As if this was not enough, Toto Wolff then commented on how Sebastian Vettel must be taken into consideration – and with those remarks the F1 Community asked the question “What about Bottas?”
The exact statement the Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff said to Germany's dpa press agency, which has since led to images of the 4-time German F1 champion being photoshopped into Mercedes racing overalls, as well as numerous memes, was:
"Sebastian is a great driver, a major personality and an asset to any Formula 1 team," Wolff said. "When looking to the future, our first loyalty lies with the current Mercedes drivers. But naturally we must take this development into consideration."
These words were all it took for the F1 Community speculation to go into overdrive at the mouth-watering prospect of a Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton combination – 10 F1 World Drivers’ World Championships between the pair of them. As unlikely as this combination of drivers for the Silver Arrows may be, for this to come to pass it would result in Valtteri Bottas, famously only given one-year contracts by Mercedes, being replaced. Harsh treatment for the Finnish racer who has been a crucial part of Mercedes’ success for the last three years and was the closest rival to Lewis Hamilton in 2019 having amassed 326 points in comparison to 3rd place finisher Max Verstappen’s 278 points. Lewis Hamilton’s total was a staggering 413 points so - in reality – no one came close to him.
Of course, Valtteri Bottas’ performance did contribute to Mercedes victorious Constructors’ Championship total of 739 points which obliterated their nearest rival Scuderia Ferrari’s measly 504 points total in comparison. Bottas has been an architect with Lewis Hamilton in maintaining Mercedes streak of F1 Constructors’ titles – six in a row and counting.
As a result, it is worth highlighting that there are also members of the F1 Community who believe that Valtteri Bottas’ seat in 2021 is safe and it would in fact be Lewis Hamilton finding himself removed to make way for the former German racer soon to depart from Ferrari.
Before dismissing this prospect, it is worth reflecting on the economic climate which COVID-19 has placed the world within. As such, should the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 Team seek ways to cut their costs, having Lewis Hamilton ‘off the books’ would certainly save a fortune.
Lewis Hamilton’s most recent 2-year contract was reported to be £40 million a year and so by choosing not to sign up the 6-time F1 World Champion for 2021 and beyond – the saving is obvious. At the moment, talks are continuing with the reigning F1 World Champion over a new Mercedes contract and he is obviously not heading to Scuderia Ferrari as their seats are both full.
The ‘Hamilton to Ferrari’ speculation started when it was revealed Hamilton met with John Elkann, the Italian manufacturer’s chairman, at a social event last year. If anything, due to the lack of offers on the table to race at competitive teams, Sebastian Vettel would probably be used as a bargaining chip to make any Lewis Hamilton contract somewhat more affordable for the Daimler Group.
The Daimler Group is the parent company of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team and rumours are increasing that due to COVID-19’s outbreak and impact on the motor industry - the Daimler Group may put the entire F1 team up for sale…but that is certainly another (speculative) story for a different day.
Valtteri Bottas famously crossed the line to win the 2019 Australian Grand Prix, announcing:
"To whom it may concern, f*** you."
Consequently, in recent ways following all the speculation, one can assume that this sentiment is not far from the Finnish racer’s mind.
Realistically, when all is said and done, the chance of either Mercedes driver losing his seat to Sebastian Vettel is extremely unlikely, even though Toto Wolff recently announced to Austrian Broadcaster QRF:
“Of course, a German driver in a German car is a good marketing story… “At Mercedes, however, we are purely focused on success, but Sebastian is of course someone who is really good.”
Sebastian Vettel is clearly an excellent racing driver but he could never topple Lewis Hamilton in recent years and so in the eyes of Wolff that would not be seen as ‘a success’ and as such Mercedes may not sign the 4-time German F1 Champion for that very reason…despite the inevitable marketing opportunities.
Therefore, this must mean Valtteri Bottas’ seat is safe, yes? Well, no, now we come to the young British talent George Russell, currently plying his craft at the back of the grid for Williams but very much owned by Mercedes.
"For us, the question is what to do about George Russell,” Wolff added. "That's one option. Then there is also the Sebastian Vettel option. But that is not first on our agenda, because we have to concentrate on our own driver programme.”
George Russell is certainly the driver Mercedes need to concentrate on, seeing how the 2018 F2 Champion recently told Sky F1 presenter Rachel Brookes on Instagram Live:
"Obviously seeing my mates up there in potential championship-winning cars is something I'm a little bit jealous of because I want to be up there challenging as well. But I know as long as I keep performing and I keep driving to the best of my ability that opportunity will come whether it's next year, two years, five years, 10 years. It should come."
George Russell certainly deserves this opportunity and Mercedes will be eager to give it to him.
So, what about Bottas?
Valtteri Bottas has been in a race winning car for three seasons of Formula One and on the top step of the podium 7 times (3 victories in 2017 and 4 in 2019). There is no doubt that 2020 will bring further opportunities for success but this may actually be it with as far as Bottas’ dream to win the F1 Drivers’ World Championship for Mercedes. That is of course, unless 2020 is the year that Bottas claims the title!
The neutral F1 fan most likely wants a fairytale end for Sebastian Vettel at Scuderia Ferrari but in Winter Testing at Barcelona the team was not on the pace. If this continues in race conditions, there is no chance of a 5th title for the much-loved German, as sad as that may be for millions of race fans and the tifosi.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Valtteri Bottas had already signalled his intent for the F1 Drivers’ title:
“I need more consistency over the season. Lewis has always been there, performing at his top level every single qualifying and race; I’ve been there most of the time, but not every single race weekend. I need to find the balance on everything and need to find ways to be at my best more often and I’m sure I can find it, somehow. As a driver I’m sure there are many things I can do better and learn and improve from this year, which I will be working a lot on it over the winter. I’m sure I can improve more for next year.”
As a result, and due to the vast superiority the W11 appears to show over the rest of the field at present, if Valtteri Bottas has found the balance and has been made aware that 2020 is his last chance at a title – having to make way for George Russell or even Sebastian Vettel - well, maybe just maybe the Finnish racer will claim his first F1 title after all.
If that happens be ready for a team radio announcement at season’s end of:
"To whom it may concern….”