Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas must take his chances to win Formula One races after missing out at Bahrain Grand Prix
It is hard to believe that had it been Lewis Hamilton in second position in Bahrain - rather than the Finn - that Sebastian Vettel would have had such a comfortable final lap
Sometimes it is the little moments that define a Formula One career, or certainly how a driver is viewed as a whole.
It could be a stunning pass, a mistake, an impressive qualifying performance, or something else that at first glance seems like a simple incident, but when you scratch beneath the surface means so much more.
If you had offered Valtteri Bottas second place before the start of Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix he would have most probably have taken it. Mercedes-GP had been off the pace of Ferrari in qualifying and he started third behind Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.
Bottas finished behind Vettel, and beat his world champion teammate Lewis Hamilton fair and square, with the Briton completing the podium. Hamilton had a five-place grid penalty and had started ninth, but Bottas had out-qualified him anyhow and matched him for pace in the race.
So why the impending sense of negativity, you may wonder. Second place is fine, right?
Wrong. Bottas should have won the race. He was on fresher tyres at the end of the race and had reeled in Vettel at a rapid rate in the closing stages.
Vettel was on badly worn tyres, which had done more than 35 laps, and he conceded post-race they had been effectively done with 10 laps to go.
Some credit must go to Vettel. He did a great job of edging out enough life in his fast-deteriorating tyres. It wasn't until the final two laps that Bottas looked set to pounce, but that should have been more than enough time for the Finn to achieved an overtake. Bottas lost time by first out-braking himself and then when he did have a run on the German at the start of the final lap it was half-hearted; he never looked like he believed he could get ahead.
Winning races is a difficult business. So, when you do have a chance you have to seize it with both hands. If it had been Hamilton attacking on that final lap Vettel would have been made to feel much more uncomfortable.
Maybe Bottas was wary of risking a collision or a mistake that would have cost him second. He has already suffered one crash this season, in qualifying for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, where he could only finish eighth.
But following home a car on badly worn tyres is not a great look either, and sadly it is becoming increasingly apparent that Bottas is a very good driver, but not a great one.
His three wins last season all came after he had led from the start. None required daring or cunning or even a strategic change to achieve victory.
Bottas should have won Brazil in November, but again ended up stuck behind Vettel after a poor start and was unable to pass. He won the final race of the 2017 campaign, the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but only Hamilton will know just how hard he actually pushed in the race to try and beat him. Hamilton’s grinning demeanour post-race at Yas Marina, given he had already wrapped up his fourth world title beforehand, hinted at the real answer, no matter what excuses he made about it being hard to pass.
The irony is Mercedes seemed content with the fact that Bottas was no match for Hamilton, the harmonious spirit in the team a far cry from the bitter acrimony that permeated Mercedes in the Hamilton-Rosberg years. But by not having a strong second driver capable of challenging for wins it could jeopardise Hamilton’s hopes of a fifth world title.
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Hamilton was always going to struggle in Bahrain due to the grid penalty. But if Bottas had won the race he would have lost only three points, rather than 10, to Vettel in the championship race.
If Vettel does end up winning the title, and it is a small points gap that decides it, Hamilton and Mercedes will have cause to reflect on Bottas coming up short at the Bahrain International Circuit.
Bottas still has time to demonstrate he can challenge Hamilton and Vettel. But he needs to prove he can win through adversity, rather than just from the front.
Certainly Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon, reportedly under consideration to be Hamilton’s new teammate in 2019 if Bottas is not retained, will be monitoring Bottas' performances for the remainder of the year closely.
Updated: April 9, 2018 10:45 AM