Valtteri Bottas’s time at Mercedes has come to an end. The reigning GP2 champion will depart his Formula-1 team after the 2019 season, with the place for Bottas taken by fellow Mercedes protege George Russell. The move makes sense: both drivers lack experience in F1 and racing is a team sport, and Mercedes has no seat for Bottas after the 2019 season.
It’s no secret that Lewis Hamilton is on his way out of F1, while Team Mercedes’ plan for 2018 is to put Valtteri Bottas in charge of the team. Moving on to George Russell, the team are looking to him to provide the next generation of talent. After all, the team have already seen the benefit of bringing through young talent, with both Max Verstappen and Esteban Ocon stepping up to the next level.
2019 sees the return of Formula One to the United States, but who will fill the two remaining seats on the grid? The favorites are Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo and Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas. However, something is less clear: should Bottas leave Mercedes to join Red Bull, or leave Mercedes to join Ferrari? It’s a question that only time will answer.
Russell has yet to be announced by Mercedes, probably to avoid overshadowing Bottas’ announcement, but this has been a long time coming. Russell’s card had been marked for a climb to the top since he conquered F1’s feeder series — GP3 and Formula 2 — by storm, and as a Mercedes junior driver, he had a clear path to the very front of the grid.
Russell has been an apprentice with the Mercedes-powered Williams team near the rear of the field for the last three years. During that period, it became obvious that he is ready to compete for a top team, and with Bottas’ performances and age working against him, it became a question of when, not if, Mercedes made the move.
Russell’s performance as a replacement for Hamilton in the Sakhir Grand Prix last year, in which he would have won if not for a tyre mix-up in a pit stop and a puncture that followed, demonstrated that he was ready. More evidence of his ability came during a remarkable run of qualifying sessions for Williams this year, with three Q3 appearances and only one Q1 knockout in 13 qualifying sessions, with the clear highlight being his remarkable second place grid position (and thus second place finish) at the rain-affected Belgian Grand Prix.
Bottas, on the other hand, has been an important part of the Mercedes squad for the last five years, but not an essential one. When Nico Rosberg suddenly retired after winning the 2016 World Championship, putting team principal Toto Wolff in the lurch, he received his big break with Mercedes. Wolff had been a long-time supporter of Bottas’ development and had brought the Finn in to partner Hamilton, giving him the chance that all Formula One drivers crave: a chance to drive the fastest vehicle on the field.
Bottas did all he could to take advantage of the chance, but he was pitted against Hamilton, the best driver of his time. He has certainly helped to Mercedes’ Formula One supremacy over the last four and a half seasons, but he has always been second fiddle to Hamilton.
During his tenure with Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas has won nine races. Getty Images/Dan Istitene/Formula 1/Formula 1
Since arriving at the beginning of 2017, he has signed rolling one-year contracts, leaving him with uncertainty about his future every summer. There’s a case to be made that if he’d been given a longer contract, he could have established a more firm foundation for championship success, but in Formula One, results are money, and Bottas wasn’t able to achieve them consistently enough to win a multi-year agreement.
At Mercedes, nine victories from 92 starts isn’t bad, but it pales in contrast to Hamilton’s 46 in the same time frame. There’s no question that Bottas can beat Hamilton to a pole position or even win a race in a straight battle on his day, but there’s no indication that he can do it regularly enough to launch a championship campaign.
That idea is supported by the first part of the 2021 season. Bottas has fallen farther behind as Hamilton has stepped up his game to face the challenge from Max Verstappen in this year’s championship battle. It’s not a terrible position for Mercedes since Bottas is still competitive enough to help with race strategy on occasion, but he has already lost almost 100 points behind Hamilton in only 13 races. Sergio Perez, his Red Bull teammate, has just narrowly outscored him.
That isn’t to say that Mercedes’ choice to replace Bottas was simple. Mercedes would have maintained the inner harmony that has been a defining element in one of the most successful F1 teams of all time if Bottas had been retained in 2022. Russell’s brilliance threatens to destabilize the team’s cohesion, as he arrives with the talents and desire to pose an internal challenge to Hamilton in what might be his last two years as a seven-time champion.
It’s risky to upset your current star driver, but the choice was eventually made based on what was best for the team’s long-term future, not Lewis Hamilton.
Formula One will enter a new era with new technical rules starting next year. Hamilton has signed a two-year contract extension with Mercedes, but there is no certainty he will remain in Formula One beyond that. Russell, who is 13 years his younger, is the future, as he said before of the Dutch Grand Prix last Thursday, and Mercedes could no longer deny that reality. Delaying Russell’s promotion for another year would have been counterproductive. Bottas had the opportunity to show that he was a suitable successor to Hamilton, but he fell short.
Next year, Mercedes will replace Valtteri Bottas with George Russell. Getty Images/Bryn Lennon
Meanwhile, Red Bull and Ferrari, Mercedes’ primary competitors for 2022, have youthful drivers in Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc who have previously raced at the top of the grid. Russell is from the same generation, and he has shown a comparable amount of promise throughout his three years at Williams.
There’s little question he’ll put more pressure on Hamilton than Bottas, which Mercedes will have to handle carefully, but Hamilton has always said that he doesn’t care who his teammate is. Russell will undoubtedly put that statement to the test next season, but having two of the best drivers on the grid is always a good problem to have, and with Hamilton’s retirement looming at the end of 2023 or in the year following, any short-term pain in team harmony will be worth it for the long-term gain of getting Russell up to speed.
While it may give Mercedes some problems, people on the outside will find it interesting to observe. F1 is always at its finest when the top teams have the greatest drivers, and Mercedes will have the ideal combination of youth and experience in Russell and Hamilton. At the outset of a new era in the sport, the best of two generations of drivers in equal machinery.
Alfa Romeo was the best remaining choice for Bottas. Even if he failed to challenge for the championship during his time at Mercedes, the 32-year-old still deserves a spot in F1, and he offers a very safe and experienced pair of hands for a team seeking to climb up the grid under F1’s new regulations.