Diversion tactics from Valtteri Bottas cannot hide the pressure he is under at Mercedes-GP
The Finn has had a tough start to 2018 and needs to put in a strong performance in Bahrain
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel may have won the Australian Grand Prix, but the consensus after the race in Melbourne in March was the same as it was after winter testing: Mercedes has the best car and will be the team to beat this season.
Well, not a complete consensus; there was a dissenting voice, and surprisingly (or not, as we will come to see), it came from within.
Valtteri Bottas believes that it is still going to be “a close season”, and that Mercedes is “not miles ahead” despite the fact teammate Lewis Hamilton dominated qualifying and was only denied victory in the race by an ill-timed Virtual Safety Car.
He told reporters after finishing eighth in Melbourne: "We’re not miles ahead. I think Lewis really got everything right in Q3, maybe the other teams' drivers didn’t get everything perfect.
"So I think it’s going to be a big battle and it’s going to be a tough season."
Underplaying how strong you actually are is of course a game that Formula One teams love to play. It’s always better to lower expectations and surprise fans with a win than to promise the world and under-deliver.
But one gets the feeling Bottas’s attempts at underplaying the relative strength of Mercedes are motivated much more by personal than team considerations.
He has a contract with the Brackley-based team until the end of this season, and a desire to impress his bosses probably contributed to the crash during qualifying at Albert Park.
Ironically, it was this crash that probably shaped the race even more than the safety car did.
With Bottas now starting 15th on the grid, Hamilton had no buffer to the two Ferraris starting behind him. Had Bottas qualified second or even third, something the Mercedes was clearly capable of doing, Hamilton would most likely have won the race given Ferrari were able to split their pit strategies with Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen with only one Mercedes to fight against.
By claiming that the Ferrari is faster than it actually is, the Finn may be hoping to make his lacklustre result seem like less of a personal failure and more just the result of going up against tough competition.
None of this is likely to convince the people who hold his future in their hands.
Bottas has yet to prove he is a driver the same calibre as Hamilton or Vettel, despite his three wins with the team in 2017.
In fairness, Mercedes probably do not mind that to an extent. When Mercedes hired him after Nico Rosberg’s surprise exit from the sport after winning the driver’s championship in 2016 they probably thought they were getting someone who would consistently finish just one position behind Hamilton.
This would avoid another acrimonious intra-team rivalry while also maximising their constructor’s championship points haul.
But no driver is happy to be a No 2, even if only de facto. This explains why Bottas would feel the need to push hard, resulting in mistakes of the sort we saw in Australia.
His desperation is understandable - if you’re not going to win the drivers' championship when you have the fastest car on the grid, when are you going to?
Unfortunately for Bottas, the other driver in the fastest car on the grid is Hamilton.
There are rumours that Bottas is under consideration by Ferrari to partner Vettel in 2019 and replace compatriot Raikkonen.
Ferrari would also be interested in a driver who can bring the car home just behind their usual championship contender, and are likely to be more explicit about this than Mercedes.
Most drivers would find a Ferrari deal irresistible, but for Bottas it may also come with the cementing of his status as a second-tier driver.
It is not a bad place to be, all things said - being paid millions to drive for the most prestigious Formula 1 team of them all.
For Bottas, though, it’s likely to be a bittersweet situation.
Updated: April 4, 2018 01:44 PM