Despite finishing second to another dominant performance from team mate Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas’ showing during qualifying for Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix is not one that can be easily overlooked.
Officially, Bottas finished the final qualifying session in P2, 0.332s behind Lewis Hamilton’s record-breaking pole time of 1:27.319s.
However, it was known since Friday that he was never going to take up the front row due to a 5 place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change. The only positive is that because of a penalty for Kimi Raikkonen, Bottas will only drop four spots, meaning he’s currently set to begin Sunday’s race from P6.
But, even if he didn’t take pole position, why was Valtteri Bottas the star of qualifying?
Let’s start with some context: since the summer break back in August, Hamilton has out-qualified Valtteri Bottas 5 – 0 (That’s including today’s session in Japan).
Over the same period, Bottas’ deficits have been rather concerning. Japan was actually the first time in the last five rounds that the Finn had even gotten within half-a-second of Hamilton’s final qualifying time.
Finishing just three tenths behind Hamilton was also majorly impressive because Bottas had been on the back foot all weekend.
Japan is back-to-back with Malaysia, a race where the Finn said he was just “so slow”, and unfortunately that evidently “difficult” weekend just couldn’t be ratified on Friday at Suzuka. That was mainly because Friday’s second practice session in Japan was all but washed away, leaving Bottas’ only real Friday experience of the track down to what he learned in FP1.
During that session, though, he somewhat embarrassed himself by running on to the grass after becoming distracted by his steering wheel display. After this session, Bottas told media that “we still need to work on things.”
Saturday morning’s 60 minute practice didn’t get much better for Bottas. Despite going quickest, his session was over after just 20 minutes due to a crash at Turn 13, better known as ‘Spoon Curve’.
Heading into the first qualifying session, Bottas had another scary moment when he ran through the gravel at Turn 9, also called ‘Degner 2′.
Just earlier in the day, a similar moment had seen Kimi Raikkonen crash heavily at the same corner – so there’s no denying that the sketchy trip across the gravel trap would’ve rattled Bottas slightly…
In the end, he finished the session on supersofts in a lowly P4, still three tenths off his soft tyre clad team mate.
Q2 was still relatively poor; although there were no major, heart stopping moments, Bottas could only manage P3, a whole seven tenths behind Hamilton’s blistering pace.
But, when Q3 rolled around, something clicked for Bottas, and his pace improved significantly. Whilst Hamilton improved his best time by exactly half-a-second between Q2 and Q3, Bottas’ improvement for the same period sat at a whopping 0.892s.
The major pace improvement from Bottas with his less than ideal circumstances in the last few days and months has to be the biggest reason I believe he was the true superstar from Japan’s qualifying.
But then, what also can’t be overlooked is the potential importance of Bottas’ efforts in qualifying. Heading into the session, it was public knowledge that both Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen would have five place grid penalties for gearbox changes.
Funnily enough, both drivers are the respective team mates of the two championship protagonists, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.
In the end, Bottas’ P2 in qualifying limits the damage of the penalty, as he still starts from the third row. However, Kimi Raikkonen’s disappointing showing to finish P6 means he is likely to start from outside the top ten tomorrow.
Unlike Raikkonen, Bottas’ P6 starting position should still give him a major role in Lewis Hamilton’s championship fight with Sebastian Vettel, who’ll line up alongside Hamilton on the front row.
Quite simply, because Bottas was able to limit the damage of his penalty through his superb performance, Mercedes now have two cars against what should be a sole Ferrari.
To me, today’s session proves he’s still quick, a fact some people doubted after what was an admittedly poor showing in Malaysia. But, Bottas simply bounced back from poor results against the odds – and now he just needs to make sure he bounces even higher during Sunday’s race.