Valtteri Bottas said on Thursday that no Finnish driver has won the Italian Grand Prix. This will be his final race at Monza with Mercedes – so, it would have been a good time to change that, but his grid penalty means it is very unlikely. Even if it is not this weekend, it would be good to see Bottas sign off his last year as a Mercedes driver with a victory. Currently he’s heading for a winless campaign and he’s yet to show much reason why that won’t be the case. At least in 2018 he had a couple of near-misses: but there is time for that.
Either of the next two weekends might represent his best chance. Mercedes is expected to have the edge at Monza and Sochi and Bottas has been particularly strong in Russia in the past. But this weekend would be particularly satisfying as it’s the first race after the announcement he will be replaced by George Russell next season.
In 2022, Bottas will have a different experience with Alfa Romeo. He’ll be less competitive in Italy, that much is almost certain, but he’ll also discover what Monza is like when it’s the team’s home race. Alfa Romeo is no Ferrari, but there is a lot of local love to go around.
Bottas should thrive at Alfa Romeo. Too many times I’ve seen him sit down for a media debrief after a difficult qualifying session or race, or when the points gap to Hamilton has got so big the championship is clearly out of the question, and seen a man who looks utterly dejected. I like Valtteri, he’s a no-nonsense kind of person and he has always seemed like a sincere and decent guy. He is, in my opinion, one of F1’s fastest drivers. But I have never been that impressed by him on Sundays, when he struggles with the added complexity of race stints.
That shortcoming has been ruthlessly exposed up against Lewis Hamilton. It’s a key difference between being a good grand prix driver and a great one. But Bottas still deserves a place in F1 and as the leader of a project like Alfa Romeo, maybe this is exactly the kind of change he needs. It’ll refresh him, give him new motivation, and make him feel a bit more prominent – he admitted on Thursday at Monza that results-wise he has been in Hamilton’s shadow, even though the team never shunned him or treated him like ‘only’ a number two driver.
Who will be his team-mate? Antonio Giovinazzi makes the most sense but it is starting to feel like Guanyu Zhou will get the nod. That feels like nothing more than a one-year cash-grab by Alfa Romeo before promoting Theo Pourchaire in 2023. Giovinazzi is nothing special but he is a solid grand prix driver and with Bottas joining the team he’d have an interesting benchmark, different to Kimi Raikkonen.
Back to Bottas, though, his chances of winning this season probably depend on whether Hamilton is out of contention at any particular race. Because if Bottas is leading and Hamilton is second, you can bet that Mercedes will switch the cars to support Hamilton’s title fight. Bottas still has a job to do at Mercedes in helping defeat Red Bull in this ultra-close championship fight. At Monza he has scored pole position in qualifying and can beat Max Verstappen in the sprint race, as this track is rewarding the aero-efficient Mercedes while the Red Bull is weaker.
So, I wouldn’t bet on Verstappen producing a Zandvoort-like masterclass. Last weekend’s performance was one of his very best in F1. He had so much pressure and expectation around him – a grand prix revived JUST because he’s racing! – and delivered the job perfectly. It was a flawless drive. Verstappen has looked almost effortlessly good at times this season. It just seems to come so easily.
This weekend will be tougher but he cannot be ruled out. The Red Bull-Honda package is extremely good as Verstappen is rightfully the championship leader now. And with a sprint race separating qualifying and the grand prix, it’s impossible to guess how this weekend will play out.