As we count down towards the start of the new F1 season the spotlight falls on a few drivers and teams who have something to prove this year. We will reflect that in a series of articles in the coming weeks.
We start with the man who replaces the retired world champion; it’s going to be a big year for Valtteri Bottas, the driver signed by Mercedes race alongside triple world champion Lewis Hamilton.
Notwithstanding the comment of McLaren boss Eric Boullier yesterday at a Pirelli event that “I’m not so sure that the Mercedes is still the team to beat”, Bottas steps into a car that carries the DNA of models that have dominated the last three seasons of F1, winning 51 races in three seasons But these are new rules, new bodywork, wider new tyres and -potentially – a new playing field.
Bottas has started 77 F1 races since Williams promoted him at the start of the 2013 season, and he scored nine podiums and 411 points for the Grove-based team during his subsequent four-year stint.
Although the new rules and aero dominated cars could change F1’s established pecking order, Mercedes is still widely expected to challenge for a fourth successive double, and Hamilton is gunning for a fourth title of his own after losing out to Rosberg last season.
All of this – plus knowing that the likes of Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso could potentially be on the move from their current teams if results don’t work out for them at the end of this year – puts pressure on Bottas.
His compatriot, former F1 driver Mika Salo, described Bottas’ situation as “very difficult”, while Anthony Hamilton warned the 27-year-old that competing against his son could be a “career-ending move”.
But Bottas is not fazed: “If the car is the strongest, yes [I can challenge for the championship],” he told Sky Sports. “I’m not here to be in second place or worse. It is definitely a challenge, and going up against Lewis is always going to be a challenge.
“But for me, it’s a massive opportunity. Everything is still ahead, so it’s going to be an exciting year.”
“I feel it is possible – Nico showed beating Lewis is possible – but I really respect what he has done with his career. He has so many poles, wins – three titles – and I still don’t have a race win. I have a lot to prove.”
One of the key battlegrounds will be qualifying. Bottas outqualified Felipe Massa in the last years at Williams, but not convincingly and against Hamilton he will have to be on his A Game every time, as Rosberg generally was.
Even on an off day, the Mercedes pair always had a margin over the rest, but if it is much more competitive this season, then there will be other cars creeping in ahead if a Mercedes driver drops a tenth or two on a qualiying lap.
Mercedes’ non-executive chairman, Niki Lauda, has said the team can assess Bottas’ progress after four races, which will be the Australian, Chinese, Bahrain and Russian events in 2017.
The Finn has a good record at all of those venues and has only failed to score points from that collection of events on two occasions since 2014 – when he injured his back and did not start in Australia in 2015 and when he was punted out of third place by Kimi Raikkonen at the Russian Grand Prix that same season.
Russia, which will be the fourth race of 2017, is likely to be one of Bottas’ strongest tracks of the season. He possesses an enviable record at the Sochi circuit – three consecutive third place grid spots for Williams – and has already been tipped to open his Mercedes, and F1, win account there.
Assuming Mercedes’ F1 dominance continues – and Red Bull could well be in the hunt given the new, heavily aero dependent rules coming into effect for this season – and Bottas was able to come out of the first four races with one win to three for Hamilton, he would still be in a strong position.
After all, Rosberg took the 2014 title fight down to the wire – aided somewhat by the double-points finale that season – after scoring one win from the first four races.
How do you rate Bottas’ chances for the 2017 F1 season? Do you think he will be able to mount a title challenge? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or head over to the JA on F1 Facebook page for more discussion.