If pre-season testing is anything to go by then Valtteri Bottas could finally capitalise on both his car and potential this season, pushing Lewis Hamilton to the bitter end.
In Barcelona earlier this month, the Finn ended testing atop the pile, setting the fastest overall time with a scorching 1:15.732 lap and looking sharp in the new W11.
But while the 30-year-old doesn’t want to draw too many conclusions from his prowess around Circuit de Catalunya, he does expect the usual battle at the front when the season gets under way in Australia this weekend.
Last season was the finest year of Bottas’ career to date with four wins, 15 podium finishes and five pole positions, results that enabled him to finish second in the championship, 87 points behind Hamilton.
A championship contender for long stretches, his tilt faded when he was unable to prevent the Briton from securing his sixth world crown at the US Grand Prix.
You have to go back to 2016 when a Mercedes team-mate has properly challenged Hamilton until the season’s end. Nico Rosberg beat the Stevenage man to the title by five points in Abu Dhabi – and even then, Hamilton was curtailed by reliability issues. Bottas has only once come within 60 points of the defending champion – back in 2017.
In 2019, Bottas looked like a genuine challenger for the title, however he was unable to sustain that same level of performance across the 21-race season.
He opened the year with a commanding win in Australia, adding to further victories in Baku, Suzuka and Austin. And while he continued to push hard and earn podium places, Hamilton proved too strong in those key pressure moments.
Germany was the campaign’s nadir as Bottas clipped the curb in wet conditions and ran into the gravel while in a podium position.
The points he lost that weekend derailed any realistic title hopes he might have had, although the battle remained mathematically open until Austin where Bottas was the last man still in contention.
Of course, coming off second best to one of the greatest drivers of all time is far from a poor feat. But like any driver, Bottas wants to be champion.
Added to that, matters in his personal life would have affected parts of last campaign as he and his wife of three years Emilia divorced due to the struggles of balancing their careers.
Although only four months on from the split, he is in a new relationship with pro cyclist Tiffany Cromwell, spending the winter break with his girlfriend in Australia and France.
The mental break away from the car would have done him wonders and he looks refreshed and happier ahead of another gruelling year.
Pressure will be on his shoulders again to achieve formidable results, part of what comes with racing for the best team in the sport and having a six-time world champion as a team-mate.
For Bottas, he just needs to go out and push to the maximum in every race, minimise his mistakes and get the best out of his potential.
Twelve months ago there were whispers of Esteban Ocon – now at Renault – taking his seat for the 2020 season. This year, there is a live chance of Williams’ George Russell replacing him for 2021, therefore a few wins is still not going to guarantee him a contract extension.
Bottas probably won’t stop Hamilton from matching Michael Schumacher’s seven world titles, but with the W11 looking like yet another racing beast, he certainly can’t be ruled out as a strong contender.
And with regulations set to change in 2021, arguably this is the year where his position at the front of the grid is in its greatest peril yet.
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