Valtteri Bottas may find himself playing a decisive role in Lewis Hamilton’s tilt to wrap up the title at the United States Grand Prix after Sebastian Vettel is handed his grid drop.
Vettel is fighting an against-the-odds battle to keep the championship alive, but to do so he must prevent Lewis Hamilton from outscoring him by eight points or more.
The German qualified second, just 0.061 seconds behind Hamilton, but a three-place grid penalty, incurred for speeding under red flags during Friday practice, will drop him to fifth on the grid behind Kimi Raikkonen, Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo in second, third and fourth on the grid respectively.
If Hamilton wins, Vettel must finish second to take the championship battle one more round.
Bottas is therefore positioned as a key roadblock to Vettel’s progress up the grid, but the Finn, who has lamented his casting as a second driver to his title-leading teammate, says he will preference aggression over defending against Vettel in the race.
“I think my job is, first, to try and attack, try to progress in the race, and that means at least getting by Kimi,” he explained. “I think for our goal, which is to get the maximum points we can as a team, there are no plans for me to slow down anyone.
“I’ll just try to go for it and get the best possible result.”
Team boss Toto Wolff concurred, saying he would prefer for Bottas to run a strong race before considering his deployment in a tactical role.
“He doesn’t have a lot to lose,” he said. “If at the end we find ourselves in a situation where we again need to evaluate the points, we’ll do that.
“But I don’t want to commit to say now whether or what we’ll be doing.”
But Wolff added he wasn’t prepared to leave anything to chance with the title still mathematically on the line.
“You either have the trophy in your hands, or you don’t. And we don’t,” he insisted. “I know from the points point of view we’re looking solid, but everything can happen in the sport.
“Ferrari has come back strong, it’s what we have expected, and that’s why I’d like to keep all options open for tomorrow.”
An aggressive approach to the race marks out Raikkonen as Bottas’s first obstacle, and adding an extra level of difficulty to the task is that the senior Finn will start on the grippier ultrasoft tyre compound.
Bottas, along with the other frontrunning drivers in the top five, wills tart on the more durable but slower supersoft tyre.
“I think at the start, with the softer tyre, he should have the upper hand,” he said. “It depends on the temperature of the tarmac, but the difference can be in metres.
“But I’m starting from the clean side, so that’s something we’re going to find out tomorrow.”
Bottas will also have additional strategic flexibility, with the longevity of the ultrasoft under question in what is forecast to be warmer weather for the race.
That could be a key differentiator for Bottas should he be unable to get past at the start given Ferrari’s straight-line speed will make overtaking difficult thereafter.
“They’re gaining in the straights while we were stronger in the corners,” he said. “I think we approached the dry conditions with different wing levels, so we’ll see in the race tomorrow how that’s going to work out.”