Toto Wolff’s voice appearing on the radio shortly before a crucial final run in Abu Dhabi Grand Prix qualifying was unusual for a senior Mercedes team figure who rarely interrupts on-track action.
With Valtteri Bottas on provisional pole after the first set of timed Q3 laps, the message “all you have, Valtteri” might also have been a potential distraction as Bottas approached the second half of his out-lap.
“If you can support another person in the team with encouragement or certain words, you do it” :: Valtteri Bottas
However, this rare act of in-the-moment vocal encouragement was effectively at Bottas’s request, and an unusual example of how the Mercedes Formula 1 team is not giving up on its at-times maligned number two.
Bottas wound up second but did make a crucial improvement on his final lap that kept him ahead of team-mate Lewis Hamilton.
Afterwards, he was slightly aloof about Wolff’s message.
“He can always talk to us if he wants,” said Bottas.
“In the last days we’ve had a chat about different things.
“We’re a team and we support each other. If you can support another person in the team with encouragement or certain words, you do it.
“I would do the same for any team member. Nothing more than that. I think it’s a personal thing.”
The timing is surely no coincidence.
Not just because Mercedes faced a string of fresh questions about Bottas’s immediate future, despite him having a contract for 2021, following George Russell’s stunning stand-in performance for Hamilton in last week’s Sakhir Grand Prix.
But also because as the season nears its end, Bottas has taken a pummelling.
Wolff has joked about Mercedes’ culture sounding like a “tree-hugging” exercise before, but the reality is that the team knows how to look after its own. This seems like a clear example of that: a verbal ‘arm around the shoulder’, to butcher a phrase.
“Sometimes I get close, sometimes I manage to beat him, but having a fourth year in a row, a defeat, is tough to accept” :: Valtteri Bottas
Bottas had arrived at the season finale in Abu Dhabi after three podium-less races – his latest results reading a painful 14th, eighth, eighth – and said his “only target” was “to go into the break with a good result or a race win”.
He did “not look at anything”, “a single headline or a single news article, or social media”, after the Sakhir GP, in his bid to re-energise one last time in a draining season.
The last few events have not been kind to Bottas. He was leading at Imola when debris got lodged in his bargeboards and cost significant performance.
Then Hamilton clinched the title in Turkey with a superb drive that combined with Bottas’s worst grand prix of the season.
In the first race after the championship was mathematically settled Hamilton took Bahrain GP victory while Bottas was eighth following an early puncture.
Then in Hamilton’s absence Bottas was outperformed by Mercedes debutant Russell at the Sakhir GP and finished eighth again because of the team’s pitstop drama.
Though Bottas had been out of realistic title contention for a while, the elimination of his championship hopes last month is undoubtedly a significant factor in his season limping to the finish.
Wolff said on Friday in Abu Dhabi: “Losing a title is not something that is easy to digest, and is not expected to be easy to digest. It takes its toll. It is to be expected.”
And Bottas has hinted at that himself. He said on Thursday that “it’s these kinds of moments when you feel that you don’t perform 100% for many different races, for different reasons”.
“It’s no secret that battling with Lewis years and years, I know how much it takes out of me when I try and get 100% out of me every single weekend and keep pushing,” Bottas had said in the build-up to the finale.
“I said to him ‘are you sure? Because I don’t want to interfere into you driving the car’” :: Toto Wolff
“Sometimes I get close, sometimes I manage to beat him, but having a fourth year in a row, a defeat in terms of the championship title, is tough to accept.
“It has an effect and when you know the title is lost, it’s not quite the same even though you should always give 100%, which is what I try. But everyone knows how sensitive mentally this sport is.”
Even Bottas, someone just a couple of weeks ago Wolff was describing as “so robust and resilient that it [defeat] is only going to make him stronger”, cannot weather this kind of storm solo.
And though this weekend Wolff said Bottas has the “unconditional support” of his team, it is telling that Wolff has sought to be proactive about that too.
Rather than Bottas simply ‘knowing’ Mercedes has his back, Wolff showed it during qualifying by egging him on before the final run.
“Every driver is different and we have strict intercom protocols that we follow,” said Wolff when asked by The Race if the message was a direct response to Bottas struggling with recent setbacks.
“I remember when I was a racing driver I was annoyed with the guys that lean over into the cockpit and shake my hands before we got going and in that respect, I will always, and the team will always. adjust to the driver’s wishes or to the driver’s modus operandi around that.
“That’s why I have never been on the radio unless we have a critical situation in the race.
“But when I discussed with Valtteri about our communication, he said that he felt like a more open discussion, more open communication, even whilst being in the car, is something that he would like to entertain.
“I said to him ‘are you sure? Because I don’t want to interfere into you driving the car’ and he said ‘no, I’m actually up for it and I’ve been thinking about it for a while’.”
It is hard to imagine another team affording Bottas the same level of humanity. No senior team figure – well, maybe an Austrian in Red Bull colours – is likely to shrug and say ‘yeah, Valtteri’s head’s gone, what can you do?’.
But it is significant that at the final race, with nothing to play for, Wolff was not only willing to listen to his driver’s concern but also do something about it.
That’s not been restricted to a one-off four-word message either.
Wolff has been keen to kill any rumour that Bottas may be replaced after all for 2021, emphatically stating “he is going to be in our car” next season. He even said he’d need to take a hard kick in the nether-regions “for me to ever lose my loyalty”, indicating Bottas has nothing to worry about in the short-term.
Of course, Mercedes stands to gain something by doing this. Bottas needs to be operating at, or close to, maximum capacity for Mercedes to have both drivers at the front. And the team will want to avoid the risk of him ending this year on a low point and carrying that into 2021.
But that needn’t be viewed cynically. Bottas’s mental strength means he can withstand quite a lot but he’s not made of stone and he seems to have been struggling. Wolff says Bottas has decided he wants more communication, so he obviously feels like he needs something extra at the moment.
Fortunately, he’s in the perfect place for that. And judging by Mercedes’ response to Bottas’s seasonal low point, he will be for at least a little while longer.