By Stephen Williams
Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article.
Valtteri Bottas is on the verge of becoming Nico Rosberg's successor at Mercedes following the World Champions' shock retirement. Part managed by Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff, it will be intriguing to see the role Bottas is expected to play as the team chase four consecutive Driver's and Constructor's Championships. Hamilton-Vettel, Hamilton-Verstappen or Hamilton-Alonso may have all given 2017 an added drama, but, from the team's perspective, Mercedes would have a safe and strong driver line up taking the Finn. But how will Bottas fare at Mercedes?
Bottas was paired with Felipe Massa for three season of the hybrid era in Formula One, coming out on top in the qualifying head-to-head. Particularly in the 2016 season, Bottas' qualifying performances were immense and he outqualified Massa 17-4 over the 21 races. However, in the previous season, the two drivers were much more evenly matched. Bottas only outqualifed Massa 11-8, so was his 2016 qualifying dominance impacted by Massa's arranged retirement?
One of Hamilton's key strengths is his qualifying pace, only Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher have achieved more pole positions. Hamilton was regarded to have up to a quarter of a second in hand on Rosberg on qualifying pace so it will be fascinating to see just how close Bottas can get to Hamilton on Saturdays. The Red Bulls are predicted to be a lot closer next season, so the higher both Mercedes can qualify, the better chance they have of dictating the races.
In terms of point scoring, Bottas has always outscored Massa but the consistency of his dominance has varied. In 2014 his advantage was 52 points, in 2015 it dropped to 15 points, where as in 2016 it improved to 32 points. In terms of the percentage of Williams' points Bottas earned, it was 58% in 2014, 52% in 2015 and 62% in 2016. Compare these stats to Felipe Massa's previous teammate Fernando Alonso, over the course of the four seasons they spent together at Ferrari, Alonso averaged 67% of the points the team scored. Massa was a clear number two so the stats slightly flatter Alonso. However, it still suggests that Bottas might not quite be on an equal level to Alonso. Going by these stats, it would be a similar gap to Lewis if you count Alonso and Hamilton as equals considering they tied on points as teammates in 2007 at McLaren.
Bottas achieved nine podiums during his time at Williams but has yet to win a race. However, had it not been for the Williams team's cautious approach to racing, perhaps he could have won in Austria in 2014, or at the 2015 British Grand Prix.
The Finn is cool when in battle and rarely makes mistakes. Williams engineers suggest that Bottas' feedback about the car performance is very strong and this will be important with the change of cars for next season. It may take Bottas some time to adjust to the new set up as this was evident in his debut season. It was not until the U.S. Grand Prix near the end of the season that he scored his first points.
Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo both put stunning passes on Bottas last season, so although he rarely makes mistakes when in battle, he does not appear to have the same daunting presence on track that you get from a Hamilton or a Verstappen. It is difficult to remember a outstanding overtake that Bottas has put on another rival and there have been a few instances of clumsy driving. At the start in Bahrain last season he ran into the side of Lewis Hamilton at the first corner, an incident that Bottas was penalised for.
Personally I think Bottas is the perfect fit for what Mercedes need in 2017. A more manageable relationship between the teammates combined with two drivers who consistently score points should once again make Mercedes the team to beat, providing they have a strong car. It is unlikely that Mercedes would state Bottas as a number two driver, but presumably that is exactly what Mercedes want him to be. If Hamilton is having an off weekend, Mercedes will rely on Bottas to deliver the goods. Bottas will not be expected to beat Hamilton for the championship, although it was not thought that Rosberg would one day beat Hamilton. Bottas will need to adapt quickly to the car and the team as any hopes of winning the championship could be over early on if he falls too far behind.