Valterri Bottas’ Mercedes future is under even greater scrutiny as Toto Wolff layed down the gauntlet ahead of the 2019 Formula One season.
Bottas endured a difficult end to 2018 as performances dipped significantly, and his struggles were magnified by the superior form of his team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who went on to win the World Championship.
The Finn’s preparations for the coming campaign have also been dealt a blow as the Wihuri Group, formerly Bottas’ main sponsors, decided to prematurely end their long-term association with the Mercedes driver, citing a “disappointing 2018” as part of the reason for pulling the plug.
And with Esteban Ocon lurking in the background as he attempts to negotiate a race seat for 2020, Bottas will have to up his game should he want to continue his career with the five-time Constructors Champions.
Wolff sets the bar high
“Valtteri knows exactly where he needs to be next year,” said Wolff. “He needs to have all the bad luck gone and perform on a level with Lewis.
“That is what is needed for the 2020 year. He knows very well that, and he has that in him.”
Wolff, however, stressed that Bottas’ substandard year had strong elements of misfortune to it. Baku seemed to sum it all up for Bottas - the former Williams driver had looked set to take the win in Azerbaijan until debris on track cruelly denied him victory.
If you are one for preconceptions, Bottas *could* potentially have had a 38 point lead by mid-season had he not endured a catalogue of incidents (nearly all of them in which he was on the receiving end.)
So his impressive start to the season merited little reward, and with it, Bottas fell into the unloving trap of Mercedes’ fall guy - Hamilton’s wingman.
But whilst Hamilton progressively improved over the course of the season, Bottas’ year transpired into a series of average results, and Wolff admitted that the Finn faces a challenge competing with a team-mate in the form of his life.
“Lewis improving means Valtteri needs to improve,” explained Wolff. “I’ve seen that improvement all the time with him, but you are going against a five-time world champion.
“He needs a start where is right up there with Lewis and all the other drivers for the championship, that is what he needs.”
Last chance for Bottas?
Contract negotiations last year concluded with Hamilton extending his Mercedes stay for a further two years, whilst Bottas agreed to just an additional year with the option for a second.
It certainly looks set to be the last chance saloon for Bottas, but Wolff insists he has the utmost faith in his driver to perform and finally stamp his mark at the top end of the standings.
“We are seeing the best Lewis that I’ve seen in the last six years, and there is a reason why he is a five-time world champion,” claimed Wolff.
“Beating a five-time world champion at the peak of his activity, peak of his performance, is going to be very difficult and Valtteri knows that. But I think that he has it in him.
“I think that he can win – he has proven it this year on a few occasions, but he had bad luck or was in a position where he could not win.
“I think if that turns into a positive momentum that is actually driving for the championship, I think that Valtteri can win the championship.”