Valtteri Bottas was again vocal in his criticism of his Mercedes team at the French Grand Prix
Credit: Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Image
In their seven seasons of dominance of Formula One, Mercedes have had rocky periods before. In 2017 and 2018 Ferrari were genuine challengers, but Sebastian Vettel’s mistakes and the team’s operational errors meant their hopes disintegrated at the critical moment. In those tougher times, Mercedes remained cool and did the job on track with a minimum of fuss whilst Ferrari lost their collective heads.
The challenge posed by Red Bull in 2021, led by Max Verstappen, is starting to look a lot more substantial. And that pressure is starting to tell on a team who has obliterated the opposition in recent years. It is telling when even Lewis Hamilton openly calls media speculation their drivers’ chassis swap a "myth" in his post-qualifying TV interview.
Mercedes’ actions and reactions in the past few weeks are telling of greater pressures in the present. They also hint towards a development of potentially larger and more fundamental issues.
The dynamic between Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton has been one of Mercedes’ biggest strengths and a far cry from Nico Rosberg’s years of disruption. Though he has been no match for his team-mate, it would be churlish to say that Bottas has played no part in the team’s success. Bottas’s years as a compliant Mercedes company man and Hamilton’s reluctant wingman seem to be coming to an end.
With a run of bad fortune and poor strategy and his place at the team under serious threat from George Russell for 2022, he is acting like a man who has lost faith in his team.
His frustration has boiled over in the car several times this year and he has continued his criticism of the team long after the chequered flag has fallen. In Monaco it was a wheel that would not come off that forced his retirement from second place in farcical circumstances. This led to him questioning the team’s capabilities at pit stops in public before the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
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After being hung out to dry and used as a blocker for Hamilton at Paul Ricard, he was again furious on the team radio. “Why the f— does no one listen to me when I say that it’s going to be a two-stopper? F—— hell!”. This is not a private conversation to his race engineer. He would have known full well that message would be broadcast to millions. To some degree it is an understandable reaction, but it does not make it a professional or a helpful one.
Toto Wolff has since come out to say that he loved Bottas’s reaction in France. And the man himself said that, despite his criticism, any talk of a strained relationship is "completely false", and that in-car reactions like he had in France are "just racing". The relationship may not be crumbling, but it is impossible to deny that – after four years – something significant has changed in the way Bottas publicly treats his team. erhaps we finally have the upgraded Bottas 2.0 in the form of a man who is brutally honest, has absolutely had enough and does not care who knows. A yes man no more.
What does this mean for Hamilton’s hopes? Well, the issue is currently not so much the Hamilton/Bottas relationship (there seems to be few problems and it is almost irrelevant given the gap between them) as the Bottas/Mercedes one. An unhappy, frustrated driver is rarely a positive thing. Look to Vettel’s final year at Ferrari for a demonstration of that.
There have been signs of reluctance already. In Spain, he made life much more difficult for Hamilton than it needed to be when asked to let him by. As the season progresses Mercedes are likely to need to lean on him more and more. In turn he may have his race sacrificed against his will for Hamilton’s sake, leading to further issues and discontent. It is not a recipe for success.
There is also a chance that the new Bottas, fighting desperately for his seat, could bring benefits too but, with a decision on his future being made this season, it is a situation that might need careful management. The fight with Red Bull will be far easier if Bottas is on form and on side. Ironically in 2019 and 2020 Mercedes were so far ahead that Bottas’s ultimate co-operation was not critical to either championship. This season it is absolutely crucial.
The difference to their rivals could hardly be starker. After a slightly inconsistent start, Sergio Pérez is beginning to look like the perfect partner for Verstappen. In many ways he is playing the traditional Bottas-type role for Red Bull – a driver who is grateful to be finally in a race-winning machine, with a monstrously good team-mate. He is yet to be jaded by years of coming second to him, as Bottas has, but for now it looks a potent combination and one that is on the up, in fine spirits and in harmony.
It can be dangerous to look too deeply into a couple of races in such a long season, but we are almost beyond that. Repeat performances have started a trend. Since the Spanish Grand Prix in May that trend has been for Mercedes problems to be numerous and varied. Whether that is the under-performance of one car, questionable strategy, an unforced error or ‘brutally honest’ Bottas going off on one.
Since Hamilton dominated in Catalunya the standings have swung 66 points and 26 points in Red Bull’s and Max Verstappen’s favour. Mercedes are being pushed like they have never before. They can ill under-performance and subsequent discontent if they want to win either, never mind both, championships. Addressing it is another thing altogether.
In focus: The mistakes that have cost Mercedes this season
Round two – Imola: Hamilton crashes in the wet
What happened: Though he was far from the only driver who erred at a chaotic race at a damp Imola, this was possibly Lewis Hamilton’s largest error in some years. Lapping Williams’ George Russell off the dry line, he slid into the barriers and struggled to get it out of them, dislodging his front wing in the process, limping back to the pits.
Who was to blame and who took the blame? Hamilton both times.
Points cost: In the end arguably none as Hamilton was able to get back on the lead lap, fighting his way back up to second under the safety car as Verstappen took victory.
Round five – Monaco: Sluggish Hamilton not helped by strategy as Bottas suffers longest pit stop of all time
Valtteri Bottas's Monaco pit stop lasted an eternity
Credit: Mark Thompson/Getty Images
What happened: After gaining the upper hand with victories in Portugal and Spain, things started to go wrong for Mercedes in Monaco. Hamilton was well off the pace, qualifying only seventh, with Verstappen second and Bottas third.
Despite issues with cars ahead of him, Hamilton started where he finished after Mercedes’ gamble to stop him early cost him three places. Meanwhile, Valtteri Bottas, running second, had a pit stop that never ended. A shredded wheel nut left his front right on and forced his retirement.
Who was to blame and who took the blame? With Hamilton so far behind Verstappen on Sunday, Mercedes took a risk with the undercut, but it ultimately backfired. As with Bottas’s issue, the wheel but was “one of those things” but one of those things that only seemingly happens to the Finn.
Points cost: Hamilton probably should have finished no worse than fifth in Monaco, given what happened elsewhere so perhaps a four-point cost for him. Bottas, clearly, lost 18 points as he would have likely finished second. So, probably a 20-point cost to the team overall.
Round six – Azerbaijan: Hamilton has finger trouble on race restart
This mistake in Baku cost Hamilton the win and a bag of points
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What happened: With Max Verstappen crashing out with a tyre failure, the Baku race looked to be another round where Mercedes and Hamilton would gain significant ground on Red Bull.
Starting second at the standing restart with just a handful of laps remaining, Hamilton took the lead… but just for a moment before locking up, running off and dropping to the back. He had inadvertently hit a button which moves his brake balance heavily forward making it difficult to stop. Pérez took the lead and the win as Hamilton finished pointless.
Who was to blame and who took the blame? Nobody but Hamilton here, although he later said it was not a mistake but an “unforced error”.
Points cost: Given Hamilton aced the restart (until he had to brake) a win was likely, he lost a potential 25-point gain on Verstappen in the drivers’ championship and the team a seven-point advantage over Red Bull in the constructors’. With Red Bull winning, the cost was greater still.
Round seven – France: Mercedes passivity hands Red Bull the advantage
What happened: After gaining the lead through a Max Verstappen error on the first lap, Mercedes prioritised third-placed Bottas in order to jump the Dutchman at the pit stops and move 1-2 on track. It did not quite work. Then they waited a lap longer than they should have to stop Hamilton for fresh tyres, losing out to Verstappen by a matter of metres.
Red Bull then smartly switched to a two-stop strategy timed to perfection –Verstappen took the lead on the penultimate lap. Mercedes declined to try that strategy with either of their cars, finished second and fourth to Red Bull’s first and third
Who was to blame and who took the blame? They were marginal calls both times but Mercedes should have seen that the “undercut” was powerful after Daniel Ricciardo and Charles Leclerc set quick sector times on fresh rubber. They took the blame this time but insisted their data led them to this decision. The team should have at least tried a two-stopper with Bottas as they had even less to lose.
Points cost: Seven points for Hamilton and three points for Bottas, though, given both men lost out to Red Bull drivers and their direct rivals, the swing would have been double.