There is one seat on the grid that is coveted more than the rest. Undeniably every place on the Formula 1 grid is precious. There are thousands of young drivers clamouring for the attention of every team, hoping upon hope that they can do enough to make their dreams come true. But there is one seat that, at this moment in time at least, has the best chance of allowing you to win the Formula 1 world championship.
When Nico Rosberg announced his retirement only days after winning the title in 2016, it took everybody, not least Mercedes, by surprise. The rest of the grid had already been finalised for the year ahead and it needed a top driver to replace the champion and quick. Team principal Toto Woolf reportedly received phone calls from all but the entirety of the grid, wanting to show their interest in the prime cockpit real estate. Ultimately it was Williams’ Valtteri Bottas who got the drive and in 2017 he proved himself worthy of a second year with the team.
But once again the Finn is on a one-year deal and come the end of 2018, there will be a number of top-name drivers out of contract. Daniel Ricciardo is hunting for the opportunity to take his first title and that might come more easily away from Red Bull and the shadow of Max Verstappen. Mercedes home-grown protege Esteban Ocon also comes onto the market for 2019 and the young Frenchman has proved his championship-winning potential in his first year at Force India.
The question is whether Bottas can do enough in 2018 to prove that he isn’t just a last-minute replacement to fill in the Rosberg-shaped void. He needs to prove himself as a title contender with something to bring to the team. Bottas achieved three wins and four pole positions in 2017 and up until the summer break, he was still well within a shot at the title. Not bad for a driver who is new to the team, especially one who had been rushed in so suddenly. But for 2018 he needs to better than satisfactory.
Bottas does have something in his arsenal that could give him an edge over the vultures circling around his seat. The whole of Mercedes has praised the new-found tranquillity within the team. The mind games and hostility that existed during the height of the Hamilton/Rosberg rivalry are gone. Like Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari, Bottas appears to be a calming, no-nonsense presence and it is easy to underestimate the importance of such drivers.
In contrast, both Ricciardo and Ocon have a history of getting under the skin of their team-mates. Sebastian Vettel was rattled when Ricciardo came into Red Bull and went on to beat the reigning world champion. Undeniably Vettel was somewhat burnt-out from his four back-to-back championships and it was a year where the car was not performing as much to his tastes but regardless the introduction of the Australian did not sit well with Vettel.
Force India was forced to ban Ocon and team-mate Sergio Perez from battling wheel-to-wheel last year after a number of on-track battles culminated in a clash at Baku, leaving both cars damaged and losing what could have been good results in a topsy-turvy race.
Being Hamilton’s team-mate is no easy task. He’s widely regarded as one of the very best and despite the odd off-weekend he and Mercedes have been utterly formidable. It exhausted Rosberg to the point of retirement to beat him. Hamilton had perhaps his most dominant season in 2017 and with no major regulations change to switch up the order it would be brave to suggest he is anything but title favourite going into 2018. In testing, they quietly ticked all the boxes and it seems as if Bottas will have a championship-worthy car for his battle of a lifetime.
If motorsport history has taught us anything at all it is that dominance can’t last. As long as the Ferrari years may have seemed they too did come to an end. Red Bull, Williams, McLaren, they’ve all had their eras of success. Mercedes has had four years of unmatched performance. Last year Ferrari tried but in the end, it tripped over and fell to the might of the silver arrows. But the day will come when Mercedes era of dominance ends and if the patterns of history are anything to rely upon it might not be too far away. Bottas needs to make sure he puts his time at the dominant force of F1 to good use before the tables turn.