It’s time Mercedes backed Hamilton’s title tilt
When once Valtteri Bottas was the in-form man of the season and determined to insert himself into championship permutations, today his presence in the title race hangs by a thread.
For the six rounds prior to the August midseason break Bottas was the highest-scoring driver in Formula One, claiming 106 points to his teammate’s 90 and title leader Vettel’s 98. His deficit to the lead and to his teammate in second was just 33 and 19 points respectively.
His slow-burn season shouldn’t have been surprising considering his last-minute call-up to replace the suddenly retired Nico Rosberg — to make himself at home in a team dominated by Lewis Hamilton and filled with new staff and work practices was never going to be the work of a moment.
Telling of his progress is that he finished all bar one of those six races off the podium, and similarly impressive is that his points accrued in that time included only one of his two victories. Consistency on the weekends his better-decorated championship rivals struggled has been his commendable strength.
Suffice to say that his debut season at Mercedes, even on the evidence of just 12 races, has been a success, perhaps more so than could have been expected of him.
But it hasn’t been enough to prevent his first tilt at the championship from coming to an end.
There could be no better explanation for Valtteri’s imminently closing campaign than the Belgian Grand Prix, which in many respects proved a snapshot of the season as a whole.
Last weekend Ferrari proved that it could keep up with Mercedes on any variety of circuit, and Hamilton and Vettel likewise proved that, when locked in a straight fight without distraction, they are unmatchable by all but each other.
Compare, for example, Hamilton’s deft defence of his lead at the safety car restart against Vettel, who was equipped with tyres two steps softer than those bolted onto the Mercedes, with that of Bottas against Kimi Räikkönen and Daniel Ricciardo.
Both passing opportunities took place on the same piece of track on the same lap. Even allowing for Bottas being double-teamed, the fact that he lost two places — and was unable to make up either — while Hamilton ensured his victory speaks volumes about the direction in which the title fight is heading.
Bottas finished fifth on a day title leader Vettel finished a close second to the victorious Hamilton, ballooning his deficit to 41 points and 34 points respectively.
It could not have come at a worse time, with Toto Wolff raising the spectre of his team throwing its weight behind one of its drivers in an effort to overhaul Vettel’s lead pre-race.
“It’s something we have given a lot of thought to over the last couple of weeks,” he said.
“It hasn’t been part of our philosophy in the past couple of years, but we will be looking at each and every situation during the race and what it means for the drivers championship and the constructors championship.”
Hanging heavy over the team is that Hamilton, undoubtedly the faster driver of the pair, gave up three points in the Hungarian Grand Prix after switching positions with Bottas on the final lap.
On the same day Ferrari used its drivers not to benefit the team but to benefit Vettel, who was allowed to remain in the lead in a damaged car ahead of a quicker Räikkönen.
Mercedes seems to be signalling it will be unprepared to conscience losing points through even-handedness a second time.
So the question is: with just eight rounds remaining, is a 41-point gap irretrievable?
Only a win in Italy can save Bottas from having his title hopes extinguished at the end of the European season. A win to Vettel would leave him with a gap of at least 48 points, and another third place behind Vettel and Hamilton protagonists — perhaps the most likely result — would manifest in as much as a 51-point margin, which is more than two clear race wins.
Only severe misfortune on the part of Vettel and Hamilton — a mutually destructive collision, a series of unlikely mechanical retirements — could then rescue Bottas from assuming the second-driver position, and even that would leave him approximately 25 points behind with even fewer races to recover.
With Ferrari’s well established parameters of backing Vettel to the hilt, Mercedes must confront the fact that backing Hamilton after the Italian Grand Prix, if not sooner, may be the only path to retaining the drivers championship at Brackley.
In this most likely scenario the news is not all bad for Bottas. His tenure at Mercedes has exceeded many expectations and will almost certainly guarantee the team the constructors championship.
Indeed, in a classic case of silver lining, his reward for playing the team game through to November will surely be a new contract to ensure he has a second chance in 2018.
It all comes down to this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix.