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“F1: Bottas 3.0 Needs a Hamilton 1.0 Upgrade”

August 18, 2020

Lewis Hamilton barely had to look in his mirrors during the Spanish Grand Prix, such was his dominance.

Indeed, Sunday’s race is a reflection of how the 2020 Formula One season is developing – and never was that more clear-cut than at Mercedes.

“I was just in a daze out there, I didn’t even know it was the last lap in the end, that’s how in the zone I was. I can’t remember the last time I felt like that.”

Qualifying for Lewis Hamilton almost wasn’t perfect. Despite taking pole, a slower second run as the clock ran down saw him four-tenths adrift of his initial effort – that his Mercedes teammate and rival Valtteri Bottas also ran slower on his final ensured that Hamilton’s first timed Q3 lap was enough for his 92nd pole position. Well, I say “rival”. Perhaps one should rethink that, as Bottas is currently no rival for Hamilton.

Whereas the poleman got away cleanly, Bottas was slow away again and fell behind Max Verstappen (Red Bull) and Lance Stroll (Racing Point) in the early running. It would take five laps for Bottas to clear Stroll and slot back into 3rd position, but the Finn never truly got close to Verstappen.

Despite competing with a car that is not on par with the Mercedes, Bottas was always just a step behind the Honda-powered Red Bull and while the German manufacturer took hard lessons away from their Silverstone defeat seven days earlier, only Hamilton appeared able to convert those lessons.

The Austrian Grand Prix seems like an age ago. It was a well-judged win for Bottas, finishing ahead of Hamilton, until the latter received a penalty for his part in a clumsy challenge with the other Red Bull, driven – for now – by Alexander Albon.

All of the ramblings of “Bottas 3.0” made themselves apparent, almost as quickly as they had during “Bottas 2.0” – and yet, the impression is rarely so forward and the threat not so ominous. For all the talk of the challenge, Bottas’ additional push is often a limp endeavour.

This is not to take too much away from Bottas. He is a good driver, who since joining Mercedes in 2017 has won eight Grand Prix and taken 33 other podia, but he is up against a Hamilton who is driving on an entirely different plane.

Although not official by any measure, Bottas has almost certainly been cast in the roll of number two driver, buy virtue of his inability to match Hamilton’s level of performance across a season. Of late, Bottas – who turns 31 at the end of the month – has been also been consistently headed by Verstappen {note 1} and currently trails the young Dutch pilot.

Grand Prix are organic events and each incident and ill-considered moment has the power to unravel all the best laid plans, as he explained afterward. “I think with a different start, the end result would have been very different. On a track like this, where overtaking in the race is so difficult and track position is everything, your race becomes very tricky if you lose places.” From his sluggish start that cost him two positions off the line, Bottas had to push hard to get by Stroll and then catch Verstappen – a short series of events, that forced him to punish his Pirelli tyres far more than originally anticipated.

There was some small fortune. Exiting the pits after that first stop, Bottas maintained a small gap ahead of Stroll, who had not pitted and was on an extended run, but it mattered little in the greater picture. In that opening stint, Bottas had already lost an entire pitstop to Hamilton, while Verstappen’s slightly earlier stop gave the Dutch racer enough of an undercut to build a 2s gap to Bottas by the time the latter had emerged.

It was more of the same in the next stint. Verstappen pitted earlier (lap 41 to Bottas’ lap 48), but where the Red Bull man built a nice gap to the chasing Mercedes on fresher tyres, Bottas’ Pirelli’s were dying.

A change to a set of used softs yielded no favours and conceding that the runner-up spot was gone, Bottas stopped for a final set of new set of mediums with two laps remaining in order to bank the point for fastest lap. That may have been successful, but it was also a poor return when one considers how utterly dominant the Mercedes W11 has been. “Overall, it wasn’t the race I had hoped for,” Bottas added. “Sometimes that’s just the way it goes. We’ll analyse everything from the race and move onto the next one.”

Hamilton won with ease, lapping all but Verstappen and Bottas, but even they were in a completely different world. With six rounds completed, Hamilton leads the pack with 132 points from a possible 150 and is currently 37 ahead of Verstappen, with Bottas a further six adrift of the Red Bull.

If this is Bottas 3.0, then he needs to reconsider his upgrade. As it stands, the Finn is simply not on a level to beat Hamilton across a whole season and this does not look changing any time soon.

{note 1} If one is to be truly fair to Bottas, he was running 2nd at the British Grand Prix when his left front tyre gave way with two laps to go; however, given his pace in the laps leading up to that puncture, Verstappen may well have overtaken Bottas anyway.

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