2017 F1 driver of the year: #8 – Valtteri Bottas
2017 was a breakthrough year for Valtteri Bottas, but it still left much to be desired.
Why we watched him in 2017
As with Nico Hulkenberg, when any driver changes teams between seasons it is always interesting to see how they perform in a new team, and against a new teammate. In Valtteri Bottas’s case though, this change was a particular highlight given the fact that he signed for reigning world champions Mercedes, taking Nico Rosberg’s seat after the 2016 champion’s sudden retirement.
This switch put the Finn up against Lewis Hamilton, a then-three-time world champion and a man regarded as one of the sport’s best, adding yet another layer of intrigue to watching Bottas in 2017. How would he do against Hamilton? If Mercedes produced yet another world beating car, how long would Bottas have to wait for his first win? Could he contend with Hamilton over a season? All these questions were ones that we eagerly awaited as all eyes were on Bottas at the start of the year.
There is also the fact that Valtteri is a thoroughly likeable person, and a brutally honest one when it comes to assessing his own performances, making him a breath of fresh air in a paddock too often consumed by secrecy and covering your own back at all costs.
Drivers’ championship performance
Considering he was dropped into a new team (even one as good as Mercedes) in the middle of the winter break, Bottas got settled relatively quickly and was on the pace from the start, securing a podium finish behind Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton in Melbourne. He would claim the same result two races later in Bahrain, but it was at the next round in Russia where he really started to shine.
As his teammate struggled, an electric start from third on the grid allowed the Finn to jump both Ferraris and from then it was his race to lose, and lose it he did not. Bottas drove a calm and composed race to take his first win in F1, a win that was celebrated throughout the sport for this popular 28-year-old.
By no means at this point was he outshining Hamilton, which would have been a tall order, but he showed his quality in this first part of the season, going on a run of five podium finishes in a row between Canada and Hungary that also saw him take his second win in Austria. Heading into the summer break Bottas was a close third, and looked a genuine contender if he could take the next step with his performance.
Unfortunately though, the second half of the season wasn’t the step up we hoped for, but rather a step back, especially compared with Hamilton. Lewis just took off in terms of his form after the summer break, and Bottas just couldn’t keep up, and struggled in races such as Belgium, Malaysia, and Austin, all tracks where Hamilton either won or came second.
As alluded to above, Bottas was quite calm about this situation, explaining in several press conferences over the course of the second half of the year that he just wasn’t as comfortable in the car as Hamilton, and this was causing issues with his setup time that Lewis simply didn’t have.
Valtteri ploughed on regardless though and finished the year on a high, taking two second places in Mexico and Brazil before winning the season finale in Abu Dhabi, a result that left him just 12 points shy of second-placed Vettel in the standings.
All in all a solid year, but one that Bottas knows he must improve on, especially given the fact that for the last three seasons Mercedes drivers have finished one and two in the title race. Admittedly Ferrari were stronger this year, and Bottas surely did better in terms of relative performance than Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari, but the Finn will no doubt be working overtime to improve for next year.
Any driver’s first win has to rank among their best weekends ever, never mind in one season, so let’s go with Russia. This wasn’t the first time that Bottas had qualified ahead of Lewis Hamilton, he had done that at the last race in Bahrain with his first pole position in F1, but with Hamilton struggling in Sochi Bottas was the lead Mercedes lining up behind the two Ferraris.
From here he absolutely blitzed the start, overtaking both scarlet cars to take the lead on the opening lap. It was a position he wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the race, taking his first win after holding off a late charge from Vettel’s Ferrari.
Taking his first win in F1, and leading the charge for his team when their supposed ‘lead’ driver had a bad weekend at the office, Bottas demonstrated his credentials, and his racing talent, to announce the world that he had well and truly arrived at the pinnacle of motorsport.
Again another relatively easy choice, and that is Bottas’s’ only retirement of the year in Spain. Running a string third, even after being picked off with a spectacular move by Vettel for second, the Finn’s engine gave up the ghost and gave Valtteri his only DNF of the season.
This was an especially heartbreaking failure as well, given that at this point Bottas was firmly in contention for the title along with Hamilton and Vettel, and although he would later fall away in the title contest, this failure ultimately cost him the points he would have needed at the end of the year to take second in the drivers’ standings.
Bottas secured another year with Mercedes just before the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend, and although Valtteri will no doubt be happy with this, the fact that it is only a one-year extension speaks volumes about the though processes at work behind the scenes at Mercedes.
As mentioned above Bottas didn’t have the best second half of the year, but the fact that no better driver was available, at least this year, worked in his favour to secure his extension. Had the likes of Max Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo, or even Sebastian Vettel been available for 2018, one has to wonder if Bottas would have been given another year with F1’s pace setters so easily.
This might seem a bit harsh on Valtteri, but you have to consider the fact that Nico Rosberg gave Hamilton a much tougher time over their three seasons as championship contenders, and if other teams such as Red Bull and Ferrari improve, and I have no reason to think they won’t, Mercedes will no doubt need both drivers firing on all cylinders all season to retain their constructors’ crown.
Bottas got his 2018 preparations off to the very best of starts with his win in 2017’s season finale, but he really has to carry this momentum through to the start of next year to have any hope of retaining his seat for 2019. With a full pre-season behind him this time though, you have to imagine he will be more settled in the car and team so that he can focus more on giving it his all on track.
I have no doubt that Bottas has the talent to improve next year, but let’s just hope he can pull it off!