For Valtteri Bottas, 2017 could very well be the crux on which his entire career in Formula One hinges.
He has been handed the keys to the one of the most dominant cars of the last 20 years, a car that won three driver’s and constructor’s championships on the hop.
He has the car under him to fulfil the promise that many have seen in the 27-year-old for years.
Like many of his Finnish compatriots, he’s always been considered a fast, unflappable driver. The challenge he faces at Mercedes is an order of magnitude bigger than what he has dealt with over the last four years.
Not only will he be expected to perform at a championship level from day one, but he also has, in Lewis Hamilton, unquestionably the fastest driver on the grid on the other side of the garage. Truly, this is Bottas’ make or break season.
It must be said that Bottas has earnt this drive. He’s beaten his teammate in each of his four seasons with Williams, including the struggle of 2013 alongside Pastor Maldonado and his excellent fourth place in the championship the following year.
His qualifying record in three seasons alongside Felipe Massa is an impressive 41–18 in the Finn’s favour. Indeed, qualifying speed is no doubt one of the reasons that Mercedes expressed interest in him as soon as Nico Rosberg announced his retirement at the end of last season.
This isn’t the first time that Bottas had been courted by a top team either. He was on Ferrari’s radar when they were looking for someone to partner Sebastian Vettel in 2015. At the time, Williams blocked the move, and Kimi Raikkonen stayed on at the Scuderia.
It was a measure of just how valuable Bottas was to the team, and to his credit he didn’t complain once but got his head down and continued with the job of scoring points for his team. There was much respect for the man across the sport about the way he handled this disappointment.
But deep down, it must have hurt. Formula One is a brutal game, and there is a long list of highly talented drivers who never had the opportunity to drive for a team worthy of their skills. Bottas would have been very aware that that may have been his best chance to prove himself capable of winning races and championships.
This may also go some way to explaining why this signing has been so popular with fans of the sport. He moved from Williams to Mercedes with Claire Williams’ blessing (and a decent financial contribution to help get Massa back into the team at short notice) and there is heightened expectation about what he can accomplish with the Formula One W08.
But why does Bottas’ career potentially hinge on 2017?
Bottas has a one-year deal (with options, admittedly) with AMG Mercedes. Why is this important? Because both Seb Vettel and Fernando Alonso come out of contract with Ferrari and McLaren respectively at the end of the year.
Mercedes has made no secret of the fact that they would like another champion in their other car, and it is also well known that both the German and the Spaniard (who have six championships and 74 race wins between them) have had less than stellar seasons of late, in cars that have rather underperformed.
It’s also no secret that either man would love to get their hands on a Mercedes drive, particularly Alonso, who at 35 must be feeling that time is running out to add to the titles he secured in 2005 and 2006. Standing between the championship winning team and the championship winning drivers in Valtteri Bottas
Bottas has certainly passed the job interview, but now he faces a year-long trial with Mercedes. Less, if you consider that most teams like to have their driver line-ups sorted by the Italian Grand Prix in September. That’s Round 13.
The Finn is under no illusions about the task that he faces. Nothing less than poles and wins will do. He needs to be challenging Lewis Hamilton from the start on the track, as well as, crucially, off it.
As Nico Rosberg will attest, being Hamilton’s teammate is as much a mental challenge as it is a racing challenge. This will be Hamilton’s fifth season with Mercedes, and with Rosberg gone, the team will inevitably coalesce around their championship winning man. This is now very much Hamilton’s team.
But Bottas is fast, he’s calm and he has an unflinching belief in his own speed. This is Bottas’ greatest chance.