“At this pace you aren’t going to interact with the leaders.”
That was the LinkedIn-speak which Valtteri Bottas’s race engineer Riccardo Musconi delivered to his driver over the radio a mere 18 laps into Sunday’s Dutch Grand Prix, a pretty patent code for “you’re far slower than the drivers out front and if you don’t hurry up then we’re finishing nowhere near them.”
In the previous afternoon’s scintillating qualifying session, Max Verstappen had beaten world champion Lewis Hamilton by only 0.038s to take pole position in front of a raucous home crowd at Zandvoort. Bottas started third behind them, and with Sergio Perez way down the field in the other Red Bull after a disastrous Q1 exit, Mercedes had the strategic advantage of pitting two cars against one from the start. Bottas, though clearly not a championship contender in his own right, had a potentially crucial role to play.
After lights out Verstappen made a controlled, sensible start, while Hamilton managed to remain relatively close behind. Bottas, meanwhile, dropped so far back from Hamilton that it was less than a quarter of the race before Musconi felt the need to warn his man to hurry up, or play no significant part in the fun whatsoever.
And, ultimately, Bottas could not respond. The Finn did finish on the podium behind Hamilton, but his race pace was so significantly slower than his both his teammate’s and Verstappen’s that he essentially drove his own race for the entirety, watching in the wings as two of the fastest men to ever put on a pair of driving gloves duked it out for real.
Bottas’s role as extra is the sad sideshow of what week by week is turning into one of the most thrilling and closely contested title fights in F1’s modern history. Hamilton and Verstappen are landing uppercuts on each other’s jaws race after race and fans new and old around the world are gripped, finally able to relish the contest that Verstappen has threatened to bring to the Briton ever since his debut win in Catalunya back in 2016.
Viewing figures are up, the atmosphere in the stands is at levels never seen before, and the drama of the storyline is captivating. This is sports entertainment at its best. The Netflix producers of the Drive to Survive series must be overjoyed.
But not all of the characters in this television series are equally important. Where Hamilton and Verstappen are Phil Mitchell and Danny Dyer knocking seven shades out of each other in the Queen Vic, camera locked onto them as tables fall and pints of lager fly, Bottas is the extra behind the bar whose only line is to say “£4.50 please, darlin’” to Dot Cotton.
Bottas has won only one race in the last 28. It is of course unrealistic to expect him to be right up there with them challenging for the end of season crown. Mercedes would never allow the points to potentially be taken away from Hamilton, for a start, and what’s more he simply isn’t as quick as his competitors.
But the way this season is turning out, with Bottas unable to even give his team-mate a hand when he’s in the perfect position to do so, is such a profoundly sad end to Bottas’ dream of one day being the best-of-the-best.
Every week his drives seem to become more difficult and error-prone. His gap to the front is bigger. And his subtle, understated humour in interviews is less apparent.
The entire paddock knows that George Russell is taking Bottas’ Mercedes seat from 2022 onwards. The contracts might not be signed yet, but it’s an open secret. And people around him aren’t shy about talking about it, either. Verstappen answered multiple questions over the weekend about what impact he feels Russell’s arrival will have on the threat posed by Hamilton and Mercedes, while team boss Toto Wolff is talking increasingly openly in public about the chance of the British driver being promoted from Williams. Even Hamilton himself openly discussed Russell’s prospects of joining him over the Dutch GP weekend, saying: “He is humble. He has a great approach. Being British I would imagine probably helps in terms of communication.
Formula 1 is a ruthless business. It is entirely logical for nailed-on driver transfers to be discussed in public. But it still must be so difficult to take for a man who given so much to not only his team over the past five years but also fans of the sport.
Bottas is an immensely quick driver at his best, a seriously strong qualifier and has delivered some superb, rip-roaring victories in that time. His win in the delayed 2020 season opener at Austria, in particular, was one where he was simply better than Hamilton all weekend long and saw him lead the championship completely on merit.
Near misses from extremely talented athletes are not unique to Formula 1. No matter whether those near misses take place on the track, the pitch or the court, though, the profound sadness of them is often so difficult to witness.
I watched every game Steven Gerrard played in the final season of his Liverpool career. It was the campaign after his slip against Chelsea which played a significant part in the Reds failing to win the Premier League title. Liverpool were nowhere as good a team in the aftermath, and so Gerrard spent one last year going through the motions, turning up to play matches with mediocre team-mates knowing full well that he had no chance of achieving the thing he had always wanted to most.
It was hard going turning up to matches, to be honest. Both sports star and fan entirely aware of the bleak reality of the situation, but both still there. Still performing. Still watching. Waiting for the end.
The key difference between the two, of course, is that Gerrard was able to win every single other trophy English and European football had to offer. It’s not a bad set of consolation medals.
But in Formula 1 there is only one title to win. One finish line. One dream.
Now Bottas is destined to become one of Formula 1’s nearly men. A driver capable of extracting tons of speed from excellent machinery, while also able to deliver quite consistent results and a decent amount of wins. But not enough of them to go down in history.
It is easy as a fan of any sport to be dazzled by the success of the superhumans who achieve the biggest and best results. To sit at home, mouth agape at their performances and to marvel at the shiny silver things they are rewarded with. And it is also easy to forget that one athlete’s victory can often means another’s dream ebbs away. That the thing they have worked for their entire lives has moved definitely beyond reach.
Alfa Romeo seem set to secure Bottas’ signature for a 2022 race seat with, and though the Swiss outfit likely won’t be competing for race wins anytime soon, the chance to try something new can allow Bottas to rediscover the fun of driving, to be his own man out on track again, and to enjoy a few more seasons at the top table of motorsport. Hopefully so, because Bottas is a pure racer at heart and an immensely likeable character to boot.
As the Dutch Grand Prix drew to its end, with Verstappen fending off the challenge of Hamilton, Bottas pitted for fresh soft tyres. But Mercedes refused to allow him to use the fresh rubber to its full potential, in case it took Hamilton’s extra point away from him.
“We’re not going for fastest lap,” Musconi warned over the radio. “Please abort.”
Aborting the Mercedes garage at the end of this campaign could be the best thing to happen to Bottas in years.