COMMENT: Bottas must be more than Hamilton's deputy

Matt Majendie 01:01 17/04/2017
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When Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were teammates at Mercedes, the drivers were handed a document titled ‘Rules of Engagement’.

Effectively, it was a list of dos and don’ts on the race track, and a response from the team’s hierarchy to deal with a few on-the-field incidents between the pair.

This year, the Mercedes document is effectively the same – team boss Toto Wolff said it was “copy and pasted, with added things and changed things” – but under a new title… ‘Racing Intent’.

Wolff, though, made clear in Bahrain the team’s intent, despite all their previous insistence to the contrary, is to select a clear No1 in Hamilton.

It came in just four words late in the race from Valtteri Bottas’ race engineer Tony Ross, who said simply over the team radio: “Please let Lewis go.”

In fact, Bottas was twice asked to pull over for Hamilton but, despite an initial protestation, the Finnish driver did the right thing for the team and yielded to his team-mate.

It was the right call, nay only call, for the team as Bottas was struggling with his tyres and had nowhere near the pace of Hamilton, the Briton Mercedes’ only realistic hope of catching Sebastian Vettel in a chase that at one time promised to be thrilling but eventually proved futile.

Wolff remains adamant that there is still not a one and two at Mercedes but it was clear, if that is not 100 per cent the case right now, it certainly will be soon, as much down to what Wolff did not say.

“We tried not to interfere as it’s an awful call to make,” he said. “Are you losing the race or making a call that’s not a nice one?”

Pushed on the situation between the two drivers under the charge and the reality that in such a tight tussle with Vettel they need to just pick one leader on the track, Wolff was clearly uneasy.

“I don’t even want to discuss it,” he added. “It’s not fair to Valtteri. It’s a very tough call. I don’t want to make it yet.”

How things can change in the space of 24 hours. After qualifying, many were talking about Bottas finally being able to take the fight to Hamilton after he parked his car on pole position with a lap that even had Hamilton cooing.

But the disparity between the drivers was still there in the body language of Hamilton as the qualifying top trio smiled for the cameras, Hamilton pointing at his team-mate and giving the thumbs-up while at the same time implying he did not entirely see him as a threat to his championship hopes.

Bottas’ awkward body language suggested he knew it too, even more so on the podium come the end of the race having seen his hopes of a first race win slip away.

In truth, no one knows what he might have been able to do had he not struggled with tyre pressure in that first stint, and was then further pegged back by issues with oversteer.

Despite a disappointing race he promised Mercedes that there is much more to come and he has clearly left no stone unturned in his bid to catch Hamilton.

That includes using the eye coach that helped guide the England rugby team to this season’s Six Nations Championship to eke out any potential advantage over his three-time world champion team-mate.

But if he cannot get closer to Hamilton and pose more of a title threat then the Finn will become no more than a stop-gap for another driver to come in to Mercedes in 2018.

For one, he has just a one-year contract to drive for the team plus there is no shortage of drivers queuing up to replace him – McLaren’s Fernando Alonso arguably being at the front of that queue after his third race retirement out of three in 2017.

Ironically, Bottas was once compared to a young Alonso as he set out on his Formula One career with Williams in 2012.

Having previously spun at the Chinese Grand Prix for which he was admonished by Mercedes but forgiven, Bottas was under great pressure in Bahrain but still had reassurance from the team that they had his back.

Unless he can drastically turn things round – a pole position was simply not enough – that support will waver more and more.

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