Why 2018 could be his last shot at drivers’ title

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The driver silly season of 2017 was supposed to be an exciting one. But as it turns out, it is as predictable as a Mercedes victory was in 2016. You could partly blame Ferrari for that. Their decision to extend Kimi Raikkonen’s contract until the end of the 2018 season means that a lot of key cockpits for next season maintain status quo.

While the whole world of Formula 1 awaited the announcements for the conclusion of the McLaren-Renault-Toro Rosso-Honda-Sainz saga, Mercedes went ahead and announced a one-year extension of Valtteri Bottas’ contract. Is the extension well deserved for the Finn? And why is his contract extension only for one season — what is on Mercedes’ mind?

Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas has extended his contract by a year. Reuters

Reigning world champion and current leader in the Constructors’ Championship table, Mercedes, seem content with Bottas’ performance, attitude and his no-nonsense personality. He joined the team late last year after Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement and has looked to be on pace on most occasions, scoring two wins to Lewis Hamilton’s six. In qualifying, though, Hamilton’s had the measure of the Finn with an 8-5 record. While Russia, Austria and Baku could be highlights of Bottas’ season with Mercedes, Spa and China would certainly be the low points.

For Mercedes, while Hamilton is running at the forefront of the Drivers’ Championship, Bottas’s contribution in the Constructors’ Championship has helped them stay comfortably ahead of Ferrari. From a team point of view, this might not be a bad strategy to employ (a la Ferrari), especially now that they have competition in Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel. Interestingly, Bottas’ worst performance has seen him finish sixth (China), while Hamilton’s worst was seveth place (Monaco).

Crucially for Mercedes, Bottas’ presence in the garage hasn’t irked Hamilton (yet), unlike the tension-filled pairing of Hamilton-Rosberg, and this would be very welcome. Their driver pair played PlayStation and shared it live on Instagram when the sessions were delayed in Monza. But this is also where we wonder if Mercedes are missing a Rosberg-like driver in their garage, one who would challenge Hamilton and be their second horse to back in the Drivers’ Championship. This could have been an even more nail-biting season if the Vettel vs Hamilton battle had a third driver fighting for honours too.

While Bottas has claimed that he is still settling in the Mercedes team, it would be interesting to see how the teammate relationship evolves if he were to begin challenging Hamilton for top honours on a consistent basis. Interestingly, each time Bottas has out-qualified Hamilton, he’s finished ahead of him on four occasions out of five this season.

However, an opportunity to finish ahead of Hamilton might not come his way for the remaining of the 2017 season, unless we have an unusual race. Bottas might just be asked to play Hamilton’s wingman since his chances of winning the Drivers’ Championship seem slimmer with each passing race — he is 41 points off Hamilton. But come 2018, Bottas’ focus should firmly be on the Drivers’ Championship — challenging and beating Hamilton, most specifically. After all, 2018 might just be his sole chance at winning top honours among the drivers, and earning an extension for 2019 will only get tougher as the driver market is expected to open up.

For 2019, Mercedes’ sights, as well as Ferrari’s, would be fixed on what either of the Red Bull Racing drivers choose to do. While Max Verstappen has a contract for 2019, there are possible performance clauses that could enable him an early release. As for Daniel Ricciardo, he will be a free agent post-2018 and has already indicated that he would consider moving if Red Bull Racing aren’t in a position to challenge for the championship. Ferrari could also finally end their relationship with Raikkonen.

Apart from the Red Bull Racing duo, Fernando Alonso may be available too. There is paddock talk that Alonso might commit only one year to the yet-to-be announced McLaren-Renault partnership and extend his services only based on performance. However, given the hostile relationship between Alonso and Mercedes in the past (thanks to their Spygate days McLaren-Mercedes), their reunion seems highly unlikely.

And finally, Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon, Mercedes’ junior drivers could be in the fray for 2019 too. Ocon, who has jumped ahead of Wehrlein this season — he earned his Force India seat ahead of Wehrlein — has proven to be quick, consistent and has challenged the talented Sergio Perez at almost every race this season. Could Ocon earn a super promotion to be the next Mercedes driver?



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