Valtteri Bottas will leave Mercedes as a key part of the side who won four constructors championships. But Alfa Romeo will pose a challenge.
In the space of just two days, the two worst-kept secrets in Formula 1 history became official. Valtteri Bottas was long expected to exit Mercedes at the end of the 2021 season and that is what happened. His replacement was going to be George Russell, the Williams driver and a Mercedes junior team member. That was confirmed a day later.
And while the moves were expected, that doesn’t make it any less impactful when it happened. Indeed, while many did feel for Bottas, there has been this sense that his time was coming to an end.
Of course, this wasn’t helped by the fact that Russell’s case became harder to ignore as time went on. The Briton is still raw in certain departments but looks the real deal and one to watch for the future.
As such, Mercedes absolutely had to capitalise on a promotion chance sooner rather than later. That, however, isn’t quite a slight on Bottas, who’s been the perfect team man in his five-year stint.
Doubtless there will be many who bristle at the suggestion that Bottas was a number 2 at Mercedes. After all, the official line of the team has always been that they let their drivers race. Which, to an extent, is true.
However, given it has always been Hamilton who’s battled for the title since 2017, it is understandable that Mercedes have favoured him more. And often at the expense of Bottas.
Bottas has been asked to move over, to not race Hamilton and even at times to defend against drivers to give Hamilton time to build a bigger lead. And he’s done it all without hesitation.
But aside from being a team player, Bottas has also been able to get up there among the top drivers and race them. He might not always win races but he’s consistently in the top half of the grid.
That combined with Hamilton’s ruthless consistency has seen Mercedes claim four costructor’s championships in Bottas’ four full seasons.
Even now they lead the constructor’s championship standings, despite Hamilton trailing Max Verstappen in the driver’s championship standings.
Indeed, Red Bull would wish they had a driver like Bottas to partner Verstappen. Since the departure of Daniel Ricciardo, the second seat at Red Bull has been something of a poisoned chalice.
Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon struggled badly to match Verstappen, whereas Sergio Perez has also struggled in qualifying – despite his race pace being better than Albon and Gasly.
However, Red Bull have often struggled to protect Verstappen the way Hamilton is protected by Mercedes. The reason for this, of course, is that Red Bull do not have a driver like Bottas on the team.
There’s no doubt that Hamilton will miss having the Finn around. But Mercedes are, in theory, planning for the future now.
Yet while Mercedes’ future seems secure, the same cannot be said about Valtteri Bottas. He’s unlikely to find himself out of a seat, but Alfa Romeo are hardly the team a multi-race winner goes to.
The Swiss-based team haven’t had the best of seasons. They’ve only collected 3 points so far this season and are currently the second-last team in the standings. Only Haas, who’ve scored no points, have a worse record.
Of course, there’s always the hope that the 2022 regulations sees a closing of the gap and both Alfa Romeo and Bottas could be competing for points next season.
But Bottas simply didn’t have much in the way of options. The only teams with vacancies going into 2022 were Alfa Romeo and Williams.
A return to Williams for Bottas was seen as the logical step, yet their options as of now are either Alex Albon or Nyck de Vries.
De Vries was namechecked by Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff as someone who deserves an F1 drive. But Wolff also mentioned potentially wanting to keep the Dutchman in Formula E.
Therefore, at present it seems likely that Albon will get the seat, with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner admitting they would want the British-born Thai driver to get a seat outside the Red Bull system.
That left only Alfa Romeo, who currently have both seats vacant. Kimi Raikkonen will retire at the end of 2021 and there’s no certainty over the future of Antonio Giovinazzi.
As such, Bottas’ only options were to join Alfa Romeo or take a sabbatical from the sport. And sabbaticals are a risky choice to voluntarily make, esepcially given Bottas isn’t getting any younger.
It is now up to him to make the best of this move.