When it rains it pours, at least if you’re Valtteri Bottas.
The Finn, upon whom the entirety of the sport is relying to make the 2020 championship a contest, started the British Grand Prix with a five-point deficit to teammate Lewis Hamilton but ended it with a yawning 30-point chasm after a catastrophic final three laps.
Up until lap 50 of 52 the British Grand Prix was another demonstration of Mercedes imperiousness. The famous high-speed bends of the Silverstone Circuit looked as though they had been designed around the W11 rather than the other way around, and reigning champion Hamilton put the synergy to devastating use by shattering the track record to take pole position.
This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.
The gap back to Bottas in second was a healthy 0.3 seconds, but the next-best car, Max Verstappen’s Red Bull Racing machine, was more than a second adrift.
It was a sign, as if another were needed, that this four-race-old season will be decided exclusively between Hamilton and Bottas.
Taking the fight to a six-time world champion Hamilton is an unenviable task, and Bottas has copped his fair share of criticism for wilting at crunch moments. Having led the championship prior to the Hungarian Grand Prix last round, the Finn was chastened for botching his front-row start and finishing third, ceding his title advantage.
No such mistakes manifested at Silverstone, where Bottas was quicker than Hamilton off the line and spent almost the entire race glued to his gearbox, hoping for a mistake to steal the lead from a car of equal performance. If it weren’t to come, he’d at least limit the damage to seven points.
But historic Silverstone is test for machine as much as it is for man, and the Mercedes car, so fast through the corners and thus so punishing on the tyres, was at its limits.
Both Hamilton and Bottas — and indeed almost every driver — had taken the risk of a long final stint on a single set of tyres, and with 10 laps to go Bottas began complaining of vibrations so severe that his vision was becoming blurred.
Blisters were erupting from the heavily worn front-left tyre, and to control the deterioration he moderated his pace and backed off from Hamilton.
But with three laps to go all hell broke loose.
The front-left tyre spectacularly deflated, the tread separating from the sidewall. But it wasn’t enough that it had blown — the tyre began disintegrating mere metres after the pit lane, forcing the Finn to trundle on three wheels for an entire lap back to his box for a fresh set.
It took him so long that he dropped out of the points and finished 11th.
The nightmare wasn’t yet over for Mercedes. On the final lap lightning struck twice, and Hamilton’s front-left suddenly let go with half a tour left to the flag. Verstappen behind was in hot pursuit to close the 40-second gap.
The Briton willed the stricken car home with only five seconds to spare, claiming the full 25 points over Bottas.
In what might be a representative slice of the championship fight, while Hamilton’s edge in qualifying meant he had better control of his pace, could better massage his tyres, could better manage the risk, Bottas on the back foot bore the brunt of the downside.
The cause was the same for both but for Bottas the effect was devastating. The outcome is a championship gap worth more than a clear race win, and in this shortened season of undetermined length, the title fight may be already on the ropes.
When it rains for Bottas, it really does pour.