With discussions about his future at Mercedes taking place during this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix, Valtteri Bottas made a strong statement to the Silver Arrows during qualifying by delivering a front row start and out-pacing team-mate Lewis Hamilton – a performance that Team Principal Toto Wolff described as “almost perfect”.
Bottas’ final Q3 time was just 0.018s away from Max Verstappen’s pole time, but, more crucially, Bottas was nearly two tenths ahead of World Championship leader Lewis Hamilton, who’ll start tomorrow’s race from third. It was the fifth time this season that Bottas has qualified ahead of Hamilton.
The result could be very important for Bottas’ Formula 1 future because, according to ESPN, he’s under pressure to keep his drive at Mercedes for next season.
Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff told the American outlet on Saturday in Budapest that a decision about who would partner Lewis Hamilton in 2020 would be made during the summer break, adding that only Bottas and Esteban Ocon, who works as a reserve driver for Mercedes, would be considered for the seat.
Given Wolff’s comments, Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix will now be Bottas’ final opportunity to prove to Mercedes why he deserves to keep his seat.
Bottas scored a victory in the first round of 2019 and had a generally strong start to the year. He was leading the World Championship after four rounds. But, his performance dropped away during the European rounds, which allowed Lewis Hamilton to get away and build a commanding 41 point lead in the championship.
Last week’s German Grand Prix, where Bottas crashed in changeable conditions, has undoubtedly placed him on the back foot heading into Hungary. According to Wolff, that crash made “a bad day even worse” for Mercedes.
However, Bottas may have overshadowed last week’s retirement with his performance on Saturday in Hungary; Wolff was seemingly delighted with Bottas’ Q3 effort, commenting, “Valtteri had an almost perfect lap but it wasn’t quite enough for pole”.
Wolff, however, didn’t expand greatly on his assessment of Bottas’ performance, instead choosing to talk about the performance of the Mercedes, which he said hadn’t progressed forward “as we would have hoped”.
Bottas said he was pleased with his eventual qualifying position. “I only really started getting into my rhythm this morning and it was just getting better and better through qualifying,” he added.
The Finn missed most of Friday’s first ninety-minute practice session and then wet weather compromised the afternoon session too, leaving him with just FP3 for competitive practice. “I’ve been chasing a little bit this weekend,” Bottas commented.
Mercedes engineer Andrew Shovlin said that given Bottas had missed the first practice session, he did a “great job” in qualifying. Team-mate Lewis Hamilton also described Bottas’ effort as a “great job”.
Whether the result will stick in the minds of Mercedes remains to be seen.
Bottas and Hamilton have been team-mates since Nico Rosberg retired at the end of 2016. Since he joined Mercedes, Bottas has been outclassed by his five-time World Champion team-mate.
Bottas has just two wins to his name in 2019, the same number as Max Verstappen, whereas Hamilton has managed to record seven. Qualifying results have been closer, but still in Hamilton’s favour by seven to five. The average gap between them in qualifying so far this season was just over a tenth of a second.
For comparison, at the same point of the season in 2016, the last year that Nico Rosberg was partnered with Lewis Hamilton, the fight between those drivers was much closer than what’s played out between Bottas and Hamilton. Heading into the Hungarian Grand Prix of 2016, Rosberg had five wins to his name, whereas Hamilton only had four.
2016 was Nico Rosberg’s fourth season competing with Lewis Hamilton, whereas Bottas is only midway through his third season as Hamilton’s team-mate.
Taking a further step back and looking at the wider scope of Bottas’ career with Mercedes, it’s abundantly clear that he hasn’t performed to the same level as Hamilton. Over the 52 races they’ve spent as team-mates, Hamilton was victorious in 27 of those, whereas Bottas has won just five races during the same period.
In the 2018 season, Hamilton recorded a whopping 11 victories from 21 races, whilst Bottas’ best result was second-place, a result he achieved seven times.
Bottas’ main competitor to the Mercedes seat, Esteban Ocon, has some Formula 1 experience to draw from, given he spent two seasons with Force India/Racing Point and half a season with the now-defunct Manor F1 Team. The 22-year-old Frenchman has taken a year out of the sport in 2019 and worked as a development and simulator driver for Mercedes.
In 2017, his first full season of Formula 1, Ocon finished 8th in the Drivers World Championship, just 13 points behind his team-mate Sergio Perez, who started the season with more than 100 Grand Prix starts to his name. The 2018 season wasn’t as impressive for young Ocon, who finished 12th overall.
In September of 2018, Wolff told Motorsport.com about his view of Ocon.
When questioned whether Mercedes would release the Frenchman as seats on the grid were increasingly getting snapped up, Wolff said Mercedes wouldn’t let him go and explained, “one day he’s going to be in a Mercedes and win races and championships and show all the others out there that they made a mistake”.
Sky Sports F1 pundits weighed in on the impending decision facing Mercedes during their pre-qualifying coverage in Budapest on Saturday. Former Formula 1 driver Martin Brundle said he thought Ocon had “a fair chance” of getting the Mercedes seat.
“I hear that it’s a big weekend for the decision on Bottas, I find that a bit off… that the vagaries of one Grand Prix weekend [in Germany] could make that decision,” Brundle added, eluding to Bottas’ race-ending crash in Hockenheim a week ago.
Fellow pundit and ex-Formula 1 driver Paul di Resta simply commented, “it’s up to Bottas, it’s Bottas’ seat to lose, if he doesn’t perform, I think Ocon will step up.”
Toto Wolff didn’t try to hide the difficulty of the decision in front of him when interviewed by ESPN on Saturday. “We’ve been discussing it for a long time within the team and I’ve been wrestling within myself on what is the right thing for the team and what is the right thing for the drivers,” he said.
“And in a way both deserve the seat,” he said.