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Inside Line: Valtteri… Lewis is faster than you

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We’re only three races into the 2017 season, but for Valtteri Bottas the question has already become: is he already the number two driver at Mercedes?

That may seem premature three races into his Mercedes career, but after two disappointing performances in Australia and China, things only worsened for the Finn in Bahrain as he was asked to move over for teammate Lewis Hamilton.

The why, in case you’ve forgotten: after starting on pole, Bottas found himself leapfrogged by Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel as the latter had pit just before the rest of the field followed suit with a safety car on lap 14.

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On three-lap younger super-soft tyres, Bottas was unable to find a way past Vettel, and after falling six seconds behind the leader by lap 27, was forced to make way for Hamilton, who was on a different strategy. Bottas would go on to finish 13.737 seconds behind Hamilton in third, even with his teammate suffering a five-second time penalty.

Any way you cut it, it’s a pretty damning indictment of Bottas’ performance that he squandered his lead so completely. Whether or not he had issues with tyre pressure in his first stint, the way Vettel was able to quickly break away from him at the restart flew in stark contrast to the evenly-matched battles Vettel has enjoyed with Hamilton on the timesheets. Even taking the increased presence of “dirty air” under the 2017 aero regs into account, Bottas’ six second deficit to Vettel was still concerning, and clearly Mercedes thought so too.

Does that alone make Bottas a number two driver? No, and there’s no denying the guy is talented – it can’t be forgotten that to take pole in the first place, he had to be, you know… faster than everyone else – but when looking at the 2017 season as a whole, he might need to play second fiddle out of necessity.

Possessing a pace advantage bigger than the guy on Flavio Briatore, in previous years Mercedes could usually get away with the threat of preferential treatment, but Vettel and Ferrari have shown they don’t enjoy that same luxury in 2017. Each race could swing the championship, and while it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing a stranded Hamilton commandeer Bottas’ car mid-race “Fangio-style”, they’ve already proved a willingness to make concessions for the faster driver. That simply isn’t Bottas.

A repeat of Mercedes’ clashes in Spain ’16 and Belgium ’14, or the team orders row after Hungary ’14 would now have far deeper consequences than bruising a driver’s ego, and that may cause a rethink to the “may the best man win” approach that the Silver Arrows have previously employed. It’s both a credit to Bottas that he’s good enough to push Hamilton, and a problem that (at least so far) he’s not good enough to deliver in races – something not helped when the other guy in red essentially has no. 1 status already.

If Toto Wolff had to pick one driver to commit to right now, there’s no doubt it would be Hamilton, and unless Ferrari fall off a cliff, he may end up having to make that decision. The good news for Bottas is that he still has time to prove he can deliver the maximum – whether it’s enough time is the problem.

Inside Line Opinion by Ben Stevens

Has a pecking order already been set at Mercedes? Has Bahrain opened the door for more team orders? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.