Valtteri Bottas has lost a lot of races to Lewis Hamilton this season, which has been hard for him to take given how well he’s qualified. There’s not really been much between the Mercedes drivers in qualifying and when you consider that Hamilton is statistically the best qualifier of all time with 96 pole positions, that is a really strong effort from Bottas.
Race day has tended to let Bottas down, mainly through poor starts or simply not quite having the same performance as Hamilton when it’s mattered. His win in Russia was overdue given he had not scored a victory since the season opener, and a big boost to his confidence.
But it’s an interesting case. Bottas hasn’t really threatened to win any of the grands prix since Austria apart from the second Silverstone race, where he was definitely the faster Mercedes and got unlucky that it came on a day their car wasn’t as good as the Red Bull. I don’t think he’s been particularly hard-done-by in terms of being robbed.
So, on the face of it, it was a little bit weird to hear him react the way he did, reprising a message from Australia 2019 by saying: “To whom it may concern: F*** you.” Bottas later explained it was a response to online criticism he’s been getting of late. The morning of the Sochi race he’d replied to a comment on Instagram telling him he should give up – so you could see this was really getting under Bottas’s skin.
The way Bottas reacted made it sound like he felt the Russian GP was an emphatic display that proved all his doubters wrong. I think it was meant to be more of a ‘this is why I won’t give up!’ rallying cry. But it still a bit weird because while Bottas was definitely good at Sochi, he did also face no challenge once Hamilton served his penalties. The response would have made a bit more sense if Bottas had passed Hamilton or fended him off for the victory.
Don’t get me wrong, this is no way saying Hamilton deserved to win and Bottas didn’t. Hamilton was partly to blame for having to start on soft tyres, which would have made his race difficult even in normal circumstances. And he was partly to blame for the practice start error pre-race which earned him his 10-second time penalties.
Bottas did what he needed to do with a strong start that got him clear of Max Verstappen and very nearly ahead of Hamilton. Then he was quick once released at the front of the field, and never looked like fumbling his chance.
He did everything he needed to in the circumstances and in that regard he did deserve the win. It was just a little odd that he felt the need to sarcastically “thank my critics” because it wasn’t the most emphatic of performances. Especially when he’d been quite badly outpaced in qualifying and wasn’t really sure why.
I know this is coming across quite harsh and I should state that I’m happy for Bottas. I hated seeing him after the Spanish GP last month when he looked genuinely down, almost miserable. It reminded me of a conversation of we had in Brazil last year. I was interviewing him about his best season in F1 with second in the championship secured and a personal best number of wins, and we were talking about how he responded to his 2018 defeat.
If you remember, Bottas had a really bad run of form at the end of 2018. He told me last year that he had basically reached a point of wanting that season to end. He couldn’t wait to escape, and regroup. I was starting to see signs of that again this season, and I can’t help but sympathise on a personal level. It cannot be easy to find the mental strength to handle how often he is beaten by Hamilton, especially when Valtteri genuinely sees himself as a title challenger – it’s not like he goes into a season accepting he’s the number two driver.
So, I’m pleased for him. I don’t think it was quite the middle finger to his critics that he thought it was, but I’m not trying to take the win away. It’s a great display of mental resilience that he’s not just given up. So I hope he now uses this as fuel to turn it on in a straight fight against Hamilton in future races.