By the end of August, Valtteri Bottas should know where his future in Formula One lies. It’s no secret that world champions Mercedes are considering replacing him with Williams driver George Russell in 2022, but as of last weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix, the world champions insisted no decision had been made.
Bottas ended the first half of the year in Hungary with a disappointing first-lap accident, although Mercedes boss Toto Wolff made clear that one-off errors would not decide the Finn’s future. Instead it will be about Mercedes deciding who is best for the team, both in terms of outright performance and team harmony.
In the second of those two fields, Bottas is the leading contender. Considering he has been in direct competition with teammate Hamilton for the past five years, he has worked remarkably well with the seven-time world champion, creating an environment in which the whole Mercedes team has flourished. Compare Mercedes now to the team that tried to keep the peace between Hamilton and former teammate Nico Rosberg between 2014 and 2016, and the contrast is stark.
Yet Russell is a compelling choice for Mercedes. The world champions helped fund his junior career and found a space for him in Formula One at Williams in 2019, where he has excelled despite the competitiveness of his machinery.
His outright performance appears to be on the same level as the very best in F1, and when he replaced Hamilton for a one-off grand prix in Bahrain last year, he got the better of Bottas in the race before a mix up in the pit stop dropped him back.
So how confident is Bottas that he is the better overall driver of the two options?
“I don’t know any driver as well as I know myself and my driving skills, so it’s always hard to comment,” he told ESPN ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix. “You never know with the performance of the other teams how they really are and against their teammate it is quite tricky to know.
“But I’m confident to say I am a good asset for the team and it definitely would be different if I wasn’t here. I’m confident with my driving skills, but I don’t make the decisions.
“The future will show.”
Bottas has been linked to Williams as a straight swap with Russell as well as Alfa Romeo, where he would likely replace fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen. He remains coy over his discussions, making clear that his No.1 choice would be to remain at Mercedes, but it’s no surprise to hear his management has been scouting out his options for 2022.
“I prefer to keep that to myself [whether he has been talking to other teams] – maybe I haven’t and maybe I have,” he said. “But I have many people behind me and for sure they have not been just resting at home and doing nothing.
“So of course, you need to get a sense of what is available out there and what are the possibilities. I have a feeling that I have not been told exactly how far discussions have been in other places because I am focussing on the racing, but I am sure there will be plenty of time to discuss that during the break.
“And if it’s needed for me to speak with other teams then, then I will.”
Bottas has been at Mercedes for five years, becoming a key part of the team’s success both on track and behind the scenes. Could he really picture himself somewhere else next year?
“Of course I can, but it would be different,” he said. “It’s already my fifth year with the team and it feels like everything works well as a team and with Lewis we can work together. For sure, it would be something completely different.”
It’s clear Bottas doesn’t enjoy answering questions about his future, but since joining Mercedes in 2017 he has only had one-year contracts, turning each summer into a period of endless speculation Despite winning nine races with Mercedes, he has never taken the title battle down to the wire with teammate Hamilton, and he suspects he may have stood a better chance if he hadn’t needed to worry so much about his future midway through the season.
“It’s only speculation and it’s only guessing based on what I feel right now, but it definitely would have saved a lot of energy and a lot of extra unnecessary pressure and dealing with the media at certain times of the year, and that way there would have been more time and energy spent just working with team together on the future,” he said.
“Not just focusing on the moment, but knowing you are with the team and focusing on next year and all the improvements you want to share with the team for the future. For sure, it would have been a different peace of mind, but it is only speculation.”
But Bottas insists he has no regrets from his five years at Mercedes.
“I have to say, I have no regrets. I have always tried everything I can, and the same thing this year. Obviously this year has not been the best start of the season with many races not getting points with DNFs or whatever, but no regrets at all and I have always tried to give it all I have.
“I have always tried to work as hard as I can. Even though every year so far I have been beaten by Lewis, I have always tried to find more ways in myself to come back stronger.”
And wherever he ends up driving in 2022, he is convinced the team will benefit from the strongest version of Bottas yet.
“There is nothing holding me back at the moment,” he added. “Definitely, I would say I feel like in my career I am peaking. I still haven’t reached that yet, there are always things I am learning and getting better at.
“I’ve definitely learned so much about myself in the recent years. As a driver and as a human being and being able to understand yourself and what works for you is important.
“I feel like nowadays whatever is thrown at me will not shake me and I feel like I am ready for anything and any kind of challenge in the future. Definitely I have learned a lot.
“I will try everything I can for myself and for the team for the future, whatever happens.”