A “soft landing” for Bottas after Mercedes may happen at an unexpected place

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The news that Lewis Hamilton extended his contract with Mercedes by two years raised a few paddock eyebrows, more due to its duration – most had expected a one-year deal – than the simple act of putting pen to paper.

That said, while clauses are confidential, the contract likely contains a mechanism by which the serial champion can leave the team provided he does not defect to another. In other words, retire from F1.

The timing of the deal – before the team’s second driver is confirmed – suggests Hamilton holds little, if any, sway over the identity of his team mate. Hamilton last week expressed strong preferences for incumbent Valtteri Bottas – who seldom pressures him during races. That implies he would feel less comfortable with a young challenger such as George Russell, who qualified a fine eighth on medium rubber with an unfancied Williams for today’s race.

After Saturday’s announcement team boss Toto Wolff confirmed the decision “is going to be made during the summer, and the first discussion is going to be with George and with Valtteri.” Unless Hamilton has a specific team mate veto it seems the matter is out of his hands.

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, Red Bull Ring, 2021
Bottas may not get a sixth season at Mercedes
That said, despite facing the stiffest opposition in many seasons in the shape of Max Verstappen and Red Bull, the signing provides ample proof that Hamilton does not shirk from a fight. With his record it would be so easy to walk, citing fatigue.

There is, though, the irony that the weaker a team mate the more it strengthens the opposition for they are better able to better deploy double-edged strategies – as Red Bull did in France. Thus, Hamilton can’t have it both ways, and he surely knows it.

Paddock wisdom has Russell in pole position for the drive – he impressed Mercedes with both his pace and attitude while substituting for Hamilton in Sakhir last year -, with Bottas going the other way to Williams. The logic is that the two teams have strong historic ties: Williams uses Mercedes power units (and will add gearboxes from 2022), while Wolff was a shareholder in the team until its August 2020 sale to investment group Dorilton.

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Bottas, managed by a syndicate in which Wolff is a partner, was ‘pulled’ from Williams when Nico Rosberg unexpectedly retired from F1 after winning the title against Hamilton in 2016 – German allegedly triggered a clause similar to that outlined above. Thus, Bottas would effectively be returning to the team that plucked him from his successful 2011 F3 championship campaign and ‘grew’ him into an F1 racer.

Team mate battles 2020: Raikkonen vs Giovinazzi
Bottas admits to previous negotiations with Renault (Alpine), but the signings of Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon shut that door. Both Red Bull teams seem set, as are Ferrari and Aston Martin. McLaren may be an option should Daniel Ricciardo continue to disappoint, but that could prove messy. Haas is unlikely, leaving Alfa Romeo.

Is the Swiss Sauber decked out in red and white really an option? There is increasing talk that Kimi Raikkonen (41) will retire after a stellar 20-year career. While the 2007 world champion puts in dependably solid race performances, in the words of one team member “he makes life difficult for himself on Saturdays.”

Our 2020 season analysis shows that team mate Antonio Giovinazzi, hardly the best single-lap driver in the business, came out narrowly ahead. He is in the team by Alfa’s ‘right’ as part of the deal, although Ferrari is believed to have joint input into the choice. Yesterday Giovinazzi out-qualified Raikkonen for the seventh time in nine races, by three tenths of a second.

Team sources suggest Raikkonen’s contract will not be extended, citing costs versus performance. He is said to be on a percentage of sponsorship income.

His seat will then be taken up by either a Ferrari Driver Academy candidate as part of the Ferrari powertrain deal, or Bottas. In former scenario Callum Illot, who drove for the team in first practice on Friday, would join the team. However, Giovinazzi has not yet been confirmed, so could also be dropped.

Bottas and Vasseur – pictured in 2020 – could reunite
At first glance Bottas seems an unlikely choice. However, he won his F3 title with ART, run by now-Sauber boss Fred Vasseur. Should Alfa Romeo extend its Sauber sponsorship contract – as seems likely – it needs a well-spoken race winner as ambassador and has the means to cover his stipend.

The dynamic between Williams and Mercedes has changed since last year’s sale – CEO Jost Capito is very much his own man who has clear cut objectives and is unlikely to be swayed unless a compelling case is presented. He was yesterday seen showing the heads of Porsche and Audi – in Spielberg ahead of F1’s engine strategy summit – around the Mercedes-powered team, having all been colleagues during Capito’s tenure as VW Motorsport Director.

Finally, Vasseur and Wolff, who in 2019 stated Bottas would be given a “soft landing” should he be eased out of door, are long-standing mates. Could ’77’ replace ‘7’ at Alfa Romeo? It all stacks up.

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27 comments on “A “soft landing” for Bottas after Mercedes may happen at an unexpected place”

  1. Well it’s an interesting conclusion but there are so many historic relationships around the paddock that you could almost make a case for a driver to go to any team.

    The decision rests in Toto’s hands. I see the two year contract as a sign that Lewis wants to retain his status within Mercedes until retirement. I don’t think Toto has any desire to unsettle that, and even a fading Lewis will be better than most of the other drivers on the grid.

    George has the potential to unsettle Lewis.

    I predict another year for Valterri in the summer. If he leaves, Toto will save face by engineering a soft landing at Williams – or no seat at all.

  2. I’m not sure why any driver would want to move from Mercedes to Ferrari’s B team, especially when their reputation is already a little shaky.

    Valtteri is better off going to Formula E. With the right drive he can reignite his career and maybe even win a championship. (I could be cruel and suggest that he has the right drive now – Oh look, I already have!)

    1. I am really not convinced you can “reignite” your career in Formula E. The more I see it is an “pre-retirement” stage of driver´s career.

      1. Ignition is generally a poor metaphor for that series.

  3. I’d like to see Mick in a fast car, as he’s clearly had great pace from the start, in what is basically a year old car. It would be a good place for him to learn at Mercedes, as he’s certainly learn a great deal from Lewis. If not then I can see George at McLaren, Lando prized out of his contract to Mercedes, Bottas at Williams and Daniel at Alfa if he had a shot at a Ferrari seat down the line.

  4. I see Williams as his only realistic option. Alfa Romeo, should Kimi quit, Shwartzman and Ilott are a priority.
    Effectively, Williams or nothing.

  5. Neither Sauber nor Williams are soft landings to be brutally honest … A soft landing from Mercedes would be Aston Martin at best. And that’s not going to happen.

    Unless something weird happens, every option available for Valtteri that isn’t staying at Mercedes will be a major, major blow.

    1. @fer-no65 A blow to him, sure, but he’s earned it, no? He simply has not done well enough in the WCC car. And when they finally have real competition he is not helping them enough. He’s had his day in the sun. Tons of time and opportunity to do better. Time to try someone else. GR.

      1. @robbie sure, I’m not saying he deserves to be in that Mercedes next year. I’m just saying all the options listed are soft landings in the same way crashing against a wall is gently parking a car next to a building

        1. Eloquently put @fer-no65, even if harsh, I find it hard to argue with that.

  6. Dieter, you’ve spelt Ilott as Illot, and Bottas didn’t win F3, he won GP3 with Lotus ART.

  7. Bottas will be a valuable asset to any midfield team. I personally believe Bottas is one of those very fast drivers who underperforms with a star teammate. Like Massa and Barrichello. Williams and Alfa Romeo should be glad to hire him.

    1. I think the comparison to Massa and Barrichello is spot on, however I wonder about the fit of “under-performing”.

      For all three, they’ve been in teams with a clear number 1 driver, regardless of what the respective teams claimed at the time. In the instances where they did get out front, qualifying or in the races, they were often asked to move over and concede positions. This certainly is a reality in the sport but I don’t think it means that these three “under-perform” in the greater scheme of things.

      It’s got to weigh on a drivers mind knowing that they could put everything they have into every race but be asked to move over at any given time and waste all that effort.

  8. The only way Bottas makes sense at Alfa Romeo is the scenario of Raikkonen retiring. Otherwise replacing Raikkonen for Bottas does not make much of a difference and has much less PR value. I would replace Giovinazzi with a younger talent.

    I can see Bottas remaining at Mercedes. Then Russell could join Red Bull and Perez could be the one joining Alfa Romeo.

    1. @f1mre I’d query the PR value Alfa Romeo gets out of Kimi Raikkonen. He is the most PR-phobic driver on the grid lets not forget. In addition, I’ve bough two Alfa Romeo’s in the last 12 months and in the 4 visits to the dealer it took to settle the deals (2 for test drivers, 2 to actually sort the deals out) I saw Raikkonen in a video on a screen once. Giovinazzi is more visible in their marketing stuff.

  9. I don’t see any team hiring Bottas. There’s no need to. There are plenty of young talents who have a chance, while Bottas has repeatedly proved he isn’t top material.
    But I am sure Mercedes will leave Bottas in the team to indulge Hamilton.

  10. Hamilton last week expressed strong preferences for incumbent Valtteri Bottas

    Based on his quotes it didn’t seem a ‘strong endorsement’ at all!

    I think (Bottas) is a fantastic team mate and I don’t necessarily see that it needs to change.

    1. ian dearing
      4th July 2021, 17:07

      Yea, because of course we regularly see a driver telling the press he can’t wait to get rid of his teammate in favour of someone from another team.

  11. With the riches currently present in the Ferrari driver academy, very unlikely that Bottas would be given preference in any of their teams.

    Mercedes Formula E makes more sense for Bottas and Mercedes both. A change of scene will do well for Bottas and Stoffel / Nick seems like a stale line-up for the Formula E team.

  12. I think any team would be glad to have bottas. We make these unreconcilable comparisons across teams to try to compare drivers but the teams have traces, gps data, and working experience to know who is quick and who can develop the car. i don’t have those data but my gut is that bottas is not as bad as people want to say and I think and Russell is not the second coming. Basically outsiders are saying bottas vs Hamilton means bottas is poor and russel vs. Latifi means Russell is top tier. That’s kind of weird as a basis for conclusion. Russell had a go in Hamilton’s car but it was then the fastest car on the grid so there was a clear floor on his expected performance.

    1. RealisticGuy
      4th July 2021, 19:51

      One of very few sensible comments i’ve seen. In case of bottas people are so biased that they make stupid comparision.

    2. James Coulee
      5th July 2021, 10:43

      Indeed. But when Russell had a go in Hamilton’s car, Bottas also had the same car and a ton of knowledge on how to best operate it: I think that’s the comparison people are making to gauge Russell’s potencial.

  13. Perfect candidate to keep the seat warm for Theo Pourchaire.

  14. Alianora La Canta (@alianora-la-canta)
    5th July 2021, 5:14

    Under UK law, the Mercedes contract must have a clause that permits Lewis to retire when he wants, because it is illegal in the UK to force someone to work against their will. (Mercedes are of course allowed to set consequences for retiring, and provided these are reasonable, courts won’t object to this).

    If Bottas eventually has an eye on Formula E, I could foresee him going to Alfa Romeo for a year or two while arranging that (the Formula E silly season for next winter is in full swing; Valtteri probably needed to be quietly involved a month or two ago if going there immediately after Mercedes, and I’m not sure he had much reason to do so given that he currently can’t guarantee availability for Round 1).

  15. pastaman (@)
    6th July 2021, 13:12

    Should label these types of articles as an op-ed

    1. @dieterrencken usually has an interesting column on Wednesday, which indeed is something of an op-ed; In my opinion/experience, though varying in what his column focuses on, it tries to give some deeper insight and reasoning than just the basic ‘news’; Based on his knowledge of the actors and powers in the paddock they tend to give more context or reasoning to make sense of what might/has be(/een) happening over the season or years; it isn’t so much meant as a prediction ‘taking bets now’ I don’t think.

      But even when one might see things differently, the reasoning seems solid, providing a basis for discussion under it in the comments and they are certainly a good addition to what the site offers, in my opinion.

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