Late on Chinese Grand Prix Sunday in Shanghai airport’s first class lounge, Valtteri Bottas looked a hollow man. Following his postmeridianus horribilis the quiet Finn – entirely understandably – kept a low profile, keen to avoid eye contact with his fellow travellers.
Ready to console Bottas, reassuring him that ‘these things can happen’, a few Mercedes team members tried to cheer their colleague’s mood. Admirable as such efforts were, the reality was that his pirouetting cabaret routine under the Safety Car was more Wayne’s World than world championship, and certainly unbecoming of one who has stepped up to the reigning champion team.
Valtteri is a polite and affable chap, easy to be around. Ultra-Scandinavian in demeanour, he’s rarely going to cause any stress. Outwardly at least he presents a calm front, but inside he must have been the polar opposite.
Or maybe not...
Doubt-inducing, confidence-crushing, wretched grand prix driving – while slowly following a Safety Car! – could signal a rapid decline in the fortunes of any F1 racer. Not, in the short term at least, for Valtteri. One week later at the Bahrain International Circuit and he was sitting on pole position. Anyone who out-qualifies an on-top-form Lewis Hamilton obviously has a solid inner belief in his ability to achieve.
Mildly praised by many, highly by a few, Bottas’s driving for the Williams team – if we’re being honest – never really set the F1 world alight. Sure he occasionally showed some pace and scored a podium or three, but the top boys – the Vettels, the Alonsos, the (Michael) Schumachers, the Hakkinens the Hamiltons (I could go on) – they seize their F1 chance, grab it with both hands and make quite clear their arrow-like desire. Valtteri, not so much.
When a gently feted F1 driver gets his big break, securing a seat in a genuine title-chasing machine, he'll very likely be faced with a team-mate of significantly higher ability. Bottas is surely there.
Exhibiting extreme levels of commitment that would frighten all but the greatest, driving since mid-to-late 2016 at probably his highest level ever, Hamilton is right now at the zenith of his powers. Just watch the way he works his W08 car – minimal steering input, precise, ultimately fast and incredibly consistent.
To top it all off, the calm and non-confrontational nature of the 2017 Mercedes team – no pretending to be friends with his team-mate for Lewis this year! - has resulted in a cheerful and relaxed demeanour that’s (almost) a joy to behold.
For any F1 driver to go up against Hamilton now would be a challenge of the highest degree, but for a guy who's only had to beat a past-his-best team-mate – Felipe Massa at Williams – for the previous three years, the relentless brilliance of Hamilton will be shocking to behold.
Lewis 2017-style was always going to be a man on a mission. Losing the 2016 title to Nico Rosberg, a driver some way short of possessing Hamilton’s driving abilities, stung like a sharp scratch, pricking the three-time champion’s ego, prompting him to resolve to raise his ’17 game and destroy Rosberg in a show of terrifying application.
Of course he never got the chance. Rosberg’s lame decision to run away from the challenge of defending his crown robbed Lewis – and us all – of ‘enjoying’ some serious Mercedes intra-team fireworks.
Step forward Valtteri, right into the razor-sharp sights of his ultra-determined new team-mate. Who’d envy him that?!
A clean, tidy and fast Bahrain grand prix pole position lap was impressive enough. To beat, over one lap, a Lewis Hamilton driving at the peak of his immense powers makes it even more so. In the race, though, Bottas was… underwhelming.
With the – surprising to many – pace of Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari presenting a very real threat to Mercedes’ F1 dominance, the Brackley-based super team will very soon (if they haven’t done so already) have to take the inevitable and entirely sensible decision to maximise drivers' and constructors' championship success. “Valtteri, Lewis is faster than you.”
In his role as Hamilton’s wingman, Valtteri’s job is simple. Finish second and keep Vettel away from the big points.
Do that and he’s set fair for more than one season in a Silver Arrow. Fail and the friendly Finn could be finished…