Valtteri Bottas will be hoping to end his season on a high with victory at this weekend’s F1 finale in Abu Dhabi to springboard him into a crucial third season with Mercedes.
The Yas Marina Circuit was the scene of the Finn’s third victory last season, his first campaign with Mercedes, but in 2018 he’s the only driver at a top-three team yet to stand atop the podium in a year teammate Lewis Hamilton has romped to his fifth world championship.
Worse still, Bottas languishes fourth in the drivers standings, 14 points behind Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen and just three points ahead of Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen, putting him at risk of what would be a demoralising further step backwards in his sophomore season in race-winning machinery.
But the Finn would fairly point to the fact his lowly position on the championship table belies several strong performances. For example, had it not been for a cruel run of luck in Bahrain, China, and Azerbaijan, where strategy, a safety car and a puncture robbed him of three near certain victories, he would have led the championship after four rounds rather than trail by 30 points.
Combined with Hamilton’s resurgence at the beginning of the European season, it was enough to send the confidence-sensitive driver into a midseason form slump that effectively ended his championship campaign by the midseason break.
“He had a very strong start of the season,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff acknowledged. “From then on it kind of went away for him.
“He kept his strength through these difficult days and he’s going through the pain that is one day going to make him happy.”
Aiming for those happier days, Bottas is focussing on the positives of the season to date as he seeks to close the performance gap to Hamilton.
“I think performance-wise every race this season I’ve been able to perform better than last year, and that’s what I try to continue to keep doing with this team all the time,” he said. “My goal is for sure to try and be stronger. One day things will come together.”
But the clock is ticking for the Finn. Even if he has shown improvement across his two seasons with Mercedes, it hasn’t been enough to warrant more than another single-year contract extension for 2019, albeit with the team holding an option for 2020.
It puts Bottas in direct competition with Mercedes protégé Esteban Ocon. The Frenchman will be muscled out of his Mercedes-powered Force India car at the end of the season by Lance Stroll, and he’s tipped to take up a reserve role with the Mercedes works team after paddock politicking has left him unlikely to secure a seat elsewhere.
The 2019 season is therefore shaping up as a career-defining one for Bottas, for whom another unspectacular year could spell the end of his Mercedes tenure in favour of the highly rated Ocon.
“The team knows what I’m capable of,” Bottas is quoted by Autosport as responding. “They know what I will be capable of in the future if I keep developing at this rate.
“I am very keen to be better next year and hopefully that will bring those results.
“I know that if I can achieve my goals, then there is not going to be any speculation next year.”
There’s no time to waste for the Finn — his campaign for 2020 contract has already started, and victory at this weekend in Abu Dhabi will be the first step to securing his long-term future at the head of the Formula One field.