The 2023 Formula 1 season-opener in Bahrain wasn’t too different to the 2022 F1 season-opener in Bahrain for one of the midfield feelgood stories.
Valtteri Bottas’s Sakhir 2023 eighth place from 12th on the grid wasn’t as attention-grabbing as his Sakhir 2022 sixth place from sixth on the grid, but it felt like part of the same heartwarming trend. At Alfa Romeo Bottas was having the post-Mercedes career most hoped this talented and likeable racer was going to have, getting over the mentally-crushing experience of being in the same garage as a near-unbeatable all-time F1 great and proving his enormous worth to a team in a position of different expectations.
Since then, though, the storyline’s stuttered.
It eventually did in 2022 too, but that was more about Alfa Romeo losing ground after its superb start to the new era as other teams caught up on the weight-saving front (where it had got off to a great headstart with its design) and its developments arrived too slowly and its reliability got too shaky.
Alfa Romeo certainly isn’t making many strides forward in 2023, but Bottas’s post-Bahrain downturn is out of sync with his team’s.
It’s most obvious in the comparison to team-mate Zhou Guanyu. The qualifying head-to-head is four-all from the eight sessions (including the Baku sprint one) held so far. They’re equal on four points each. Some of Bottas’s qualifying defeats to his less experienced team-mate have been comprehensive.
It’s a far cry from last year’s 14-8 qualifying win in Bottas’s favour and particularly the 49-to-6 points 2022 championship gulf.
Bottas shrugged this off ahead of last month’s Miami Grand Prix.
“I don’t feel like I’ve gone backwards, I feel like he’s improved,” he said of Zhou.
“Last year was his rookie season, when the car was good last year that’s when he had his first races, I was scoring bigger points.
“He’s definitely made a step forward no doubt. So we’re definitely more evenly matched.”
Not an unfair point. But there’s a trend within Bottas’s 2023 disappointment. When it’s bad, it’s really bad.
Mark Hughes on Bottas’s run of misfortune
“This season there have been several races for Valtteri where if you just take them in isolation you think ‘yeah, fair enough, that’s just one of those things, it’s just unfortunate and you couldn’t possibly have shown anything given those circumstances’.
“But when it keeps happening, I think you must start to question it: ‘Why does it keep happening to me?’
“Is it something about focus? Something subconscious going on there that’s making those things happen or that’s not alert enough to them not happening.
“I don’t know, I can’t put my finger on it. But the more weekends like that he has, where you can just say in isolation ‘it’s just one of those things’, you can’t keep saying that.
“It’s a cycle he really needs to break. Whether it’s within his control to break it, I don’t know. But it’s not been that great a start to the season.”
Twice this year – in Australia and Azerbaijan – Bottas has finished last of all. In Spain last time out he was next-to-last.
All three of those were put down to carrying floor damage, and in Baku the cause was obvious as he had first-lap contact there. How he sustained it was less clear in the other instances.
The Barcelona case initially puzzled Bottas before the team spotted the problem.
“For me it’s pretty clearly there was something not right with the car, because I was more than one second per lap off, just sliding around,” he said straight after the race.
“Whether it was a mechanical or aero issue I cannot say, because the balance was not, like, way off, but it was just lack of overall grip.
“Either something mechanical has been installed wrongly, before qualifying, something that affects the ride height or something, or there’s something aero-wise.”
There have been decent performances beyond Bahrain. Getting into Q3 in Miami was a clear case of outperforming the car and it wasn’t sustainable over a race distance so he fell to 13th. Monaco qualifying traffic meant he started 15th there on a relatively strong weekend pace-wise for Alfa Romeo and he could only get to 11th in the race. Such things happen in Monaco.
But a lot is happening to Bottas this year. Three grands prix out of seven carrying car damage around is a strange statistic. And probably a completely coincidence-based one.
Whether his misfortunes were avoidable or not, the outcome of this run of them is that Bottas is heading towards the less happy trajectory experienced by many drivers moving down the grid from a top team: risking sliding into midfield anonymity.