If it wasn’t for bad luck, Valtteri Bottas would have no luck at all. He must be starting to wonder whether he was born under a bad sign.
At the Monaco Grand Prix things reached a new low. Running a creditable second behind Max Verstappen he was, for once, Mercedes’ only hope of victory and even a podium. For once, Lewis Hamilton – half a second down in qualifying and running a distant sixth – was not in Bottas’s league.
The Finn’s hopes and his race were ended at a calamitous pit stop. What normally would take around three seconds lasted an eternity, with the front right wheel stuck, the wheel gun shredding the threads on the nut, shards of metal flying everywhere. Anyone who has rounded an Allen bolt head can sympathise, but this was a galaxy level mechanical snafu.
The panicked mechanics persisted in the hope that something could be done, but as of Monday afternoon the wheel was unbelievably still on the car, which is more than can be said for his championship hopes. The only word on the team radio from Bottas in the whole 90-second saga was a simple, “guys…?”. It said little and everything at once.
It is now the second time in five rounds that a horror pit stop has cost Bottas, but the list does not stop there. It is not just a trend, it is a defining characteristic of his time at Mercedes and it dispels the myth of bad luck “evening out” over a longer time.
Towards the end of a 2020 season marred by more misfortune Bottas asked: “Should I cry, or should I laugh? I’d rather laugh. It just sometimes happens. You can have a run of bad luck, and it can be many years or a short moment.”
Even if Bottas continued in F1 for another 150 races he would struggle to get back what he is owed. You wonder where Hamilton would be if he had even half of his team-mate’s mishaps.
Why does this matter if it is not his fault? Firstly, Bottas is fighting to save his seat at Mercedes for 2022, presumably alongside Hamilton. It will materially affect his position within the team. Instead of gaining points on Hamilton (had he finished second and Hamilton eighth, it would have been a 14-point swing) he lost seven.
There is no real question that Bottas is Mercedes’ number two driver, even if that is not in his contract. He is now 54 points behind Hamilton after just five rounds and behind McLaren’s Lando Norris. He has been asked to move over for Hamilton in the past, even when leading on merit. The 2018 Russian Grand Prix – in a winless season – will probably still hurt.
Bottas’s problem now is that, as in 2018, Hamilton again faces a tight fight for the championship. In 2021, Verstappen is likely to offer less of a flawed challenge than Sebastian Vettel did. If and when Mercedes decide to pull the “Hamilton needs the points for the championship” card, it could be even earlier in the season. Worse, until his contract for 2022 is resolved, Mercedes will be able to lean on him with a great weight. In Spain a fortnight ago Bottas seemed unwilling to make life easy for Hamilton when asked to move over – though the two were on different strategies and not genuinely fighting one another.
If there is another thing that has characterised his time at Mercedes, then it is compliance. It is why he is so highly valued – more of a Rubens Barrichello than a Nico Rosberg. With his future on the line could you expect him to decline and risk losing his seat at the most dominant team in F1’s history? With George Russell – who had the better of him at the Sakhir Grand Prix in November last season – waiting in the wings? It is not like he has a ready-made seat in another top team. It looks like it is Mercedes or bust for his career at the top.
Perception may matter less to Bottas, but it still matters. In two or three years – or maybe even in five or six months – few will remember the individual instances of Bottas’s bad luck when they look at the championship standings. They will just see his record against Hamilton. Confidence could be an issue – as much in the team’s ability to not hamper his progress as in his own ability.
None of this has cost him a shot at a title – even when he is not hampered through one thing or another, Hamilton is by far the better driver. Still, it is incredibly harsh. Ultimately, Bottas’s performances – and his future – should be in his own hands and with 17 races left, all is far from lost. His poor fortune is starting to look like a bad joke, with his career the target.