The Portuguese Grand Prix could and probably should have gone better for Valtteri Bottas.
The likeable Finn started the race on pole, and things briefly got even better from there when his teammate Lewis Hamilton made an uncharacteristic mistake and was overtaken by Max Verstappen.
However, the good times didn’t last. Hamilton recovered, and Verstappen drove the wheels off his Red Bull to pass Bottas and eventually finish in second place. Hamilton, as he does so often, found a way to get past everybody and win. Bottas had to make do with the third position on the podium.
We’ve been here many times before with Bottas, who begins every season by telling the press he believes he’s a legitimate challenger to Hamilton’s dominance before dropping away rapidly. There’s no shame in losing to Lewis Hamilton – everybody does.
The concern that Toto Wolff and the Mercedes team is likely to have with him – even if they won’t admit it publicly – is that he’s increasingly unable to fend off Verstappen. With Sergio Perez now in the second seat at Red Bull and looking a far more significant threat than Pierre Gasly or Alex Albon ever were, there’s a risk that he might slip into fourth place sooner rather than later.
For Mercedes – a team that prides itself on winning the constructor’s championship just as much as the driver’s championship – that’s not good enough. That’s why there might be some truth to the rumours that the team is considering swapping him with George Russell of Williams.
The rumour is a new one at the time of writing, and we expect it to have been followed up with a firm denial from Mercedes by the time you read this. Wolff wouldn’t deal with a rumour any other way. The story has come from somewhere, though, and Bottas ought to be worried by it. Could it really happen, though? Swapping drivers in mid-season is a very non-Mercedes move.
It’s more the sort of thing we expect to see from Red Bull, where Christian Horner has chopped and changed repeatedly in the quest to find someone capable of keeping up with (or even getting close to) Max Verstappen. Horner has gone on record as saying he doesn’t believe Mercedes would make the change. Privately, though, he must be intrigued.
It’s not even clear that such a swap could take place. Although there’s a working relationship between Mercedes and Williams, it’s not as formal as the senior-junior relationship between Red Bull and AlphaTauri. Red Bull is free to take an AlphaTauri driver any time it likes and send their unwanted drivers back in the other direction, as Pierre Gasly (and Daniil Kvyatt before him) know only too well.
There’s no such agreement between Williams and Mercedes. Mercedes worked out a one-race loan deal for Russell to drive in Bahrain last season when Hamilton was ill, but the season was already over from a competitive point of view when it happened. Williams had nothing to lose by letting Russell have the drive.
They’re not compelled to hand the talented young Brit over to Mercedes if they ask for him, and nor are they obligated to accept Valtteri Bottas in return. This being said, though, they’re a team with a limited budget. If Mercedes offered them a cash incentive to make the trade, they might find themselves tempted to take it.
Russell looked fantastic in his one drive for the silver arrows last season. It was only bad luck and an out-of-character Mercedes pit-lane mishap that cost him a maiden race victory. In the end, because of that mistake, he ended up out of the points.
It could be argued that never has such a talented driver waited so long for their first Formula 1 World Championship points, and almost every pundit would agree that Russell deserves better than to be stuck in an uncompetitive car.
When Lewis Hamilton eventually retires – which now looks more likely to be 2023 than 2022 – Russell is likely to be the first name in the frame for his seat. That’s probably what he’s hanging on at Williams for.
He’d surely jump at the chance to make the switch early. Bottas would not be nearly so enthused about the idea of becoming the main man at Williams. It would be a hammer blow to his career and a permanent end to any prospect of him ever becoming world champion.
Toto Wolff is an extremely smooth operator and a very clever man. He knows that Hamilton is number one at Mercedes even if the team outwardly insists that both drivers are treated equally, and he also knows the “number two” billing irritates Bottas. Russell would be happier to accept it in the short term.
Like someone playing the F1 Racing casino game, though, he’s trying to put together a winning combination for the maximum possible return. Winning lines in slots are governed by symbols. If we convert that back into racing terms, Bottas’ value as a symbol might be declining, and Wolff may no longer feel he offers the best chance of a jackpot. If this were at a casino sister website, he’d spin again in the hope of a better combination. The only way to do that in this scenario is to say goodbye to Bottas, which is a lot harder than hitting the “spin” button in an online game. Still, that doesn’t mean he won’t do it.
If Bottas were to be swapped with Russell, it would be a remarkable sequence of events considering the coming together the two drivers had at Imola a few weeks ago. Publicly, Russell took the full blame for that incident and promised he’d reflect on his behaviour in its aftermath.
There was a general feeling that the order to apologise had come directly from Wolff. Away from the cameras, the Austrian team boss must have been frustrated that Bottas was so far down the order that a Williams caught up to him in the first place and perhaps privately impressed with Russell’s willingness to attempt to overtake Bottas at all. It was a ruthless display of aggressive driving of the kind we see so rarely from Bottas, and it provided plenty of food for thought.
Russell will inevitably drive for Mercedes one day. The only question is whether it happens in two or three years time, or right now. If Bottas continues to struggle, Russell’s date with destiny will surely move closer.