until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula 1

Bottas willing to ‘sacrifice my optimal race’ – but how?

by Edd Straw
5 min read

Valtteri Bottas may have once railed against being cast as wingman Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, but heading into the title-deciding Abu Dhabi Grand Prix he has embraced the role of potential kingmaker for Lewis Hamilton.

Although he will start only sixth, Bottas says he is willing to “sacrifice my optimal race” in order to help ensure Hamilton takes his eighth world championship. And with Mercedes taking a 28-point constructors’ championship lead into the season finale, it has the flexibility to use Bottas to hinder Verstappen even if it does cost him positions, given it needs only 16 points to be certain of the constructors’ title even if Red Bull finishes first and second with fastest lap.

Bottas has helped Hamilton and Mercedes to four drivers’ and constructors’ doubles and is eager to make it five before moving to Alfa Romeo for 2022.

Valtteri Bottas Mercedes F1 Abu Dhabi GP

“I’m ready to sacrifice my optimal race because we really want both titles,” said Bottas when asked by The Race how he feels about potentially being a pawn in the battle for the drivers’ championship.

“I want us to get both titles before I go, so I’m definitely going to do my part for both of the titles.”

From sixth place, Bottas is extremely unlikely to be able to trouble Verstappen in the first stint of the race.

That might change in the case of a dramatic first lap that reshuffles the order significantly, but chances are it will be later in the race that he can have an influence.

Cynics would suggest he could launch an absurd attack in a bid to wipe Verstappen out. However, such a deliberate move would be clearly illegal and entirely out of character for Bottas – as despite his rear-ending of Lando Norris in Hungary leading to the retirement of both Red Bulls, this was an honest mistake that could just as easily have wiped out Hamilton.

Valtteri Bottas Lando Norris Max Verstappen Sergio Perez F1 Hungarian GP crash

What’s for more likely that he could come into play in the second phase of the race. Provided he avoids dropping too far back from Verstappen and Hamilton, which is a possibility given he lines up behind Norris, Sergio Perez and Carlos Sainz on the grid, he could potentially run longer than the top two.

“At least make sure I don’t lose positions on the start, that’s number one,” said Bottas of his approach to the race.

“I need to be patient and play the long game because I can go long if I want to in the first stint. It’s important to get the points, not to destroy the car, so I need to be patient, I would say.”

While he starts on mediums, as Hamilton does, with the Red Bulls on softs, if the race pans out in its most predictable form Verstappen and Hamilton should run first and second. One or the other will trigger the pitstops in what should be a one-stop race.

At this point, the hope will be that Bottas is still within the window to be ahead of Verstappen when the Dutchman makes his stop.

Bottas can run significantly longer, and indeed is running a softer set-up than Hamilton that he expects to make the car very effective over a race stint.

Valtteri Bottas Mercedes F1 Abu Dhabi GP

While that softer set-up hindered him in qualifying, he expects to be in better shape for the race despite having to switch to an older engine after Friday practice to be “more confident on reliability”.

“I kind of hit a laptime limit,” said Bottas. “The more I tried, [the more] it felt like the set-up didn’t have any more in it.

“I went for quite a soft set-up mechanically and I feel it’s really good for the race. But I was hoping it should still be OK for quali, but the grip was improving quite a lot.

“And one [other] factor is that we had to change to an older PU for today that compared to yesterday maybe [cost] at least two tenths.”

What Bottas could then do if ahead of Verstappen by running longer will depend on the race situation. But he would then be in a position to hold Verstappen up, complicating the race for the Red Bull man. Given the tyre degradation is not too pronounced based on what we’ve seen during free practice, it’s feasible he would have the speed to be a genuine hindrance. It would also put him on fresher rubber later in the race, albeit having lost time to a subsequent pitstop that could leave him out of range.

But there is also the question of Perez. If he’s not a threat to Hamilton earlier on, Red Bull would have the option to put Perez in play for Hamilton after the latter’s first stop – although he would have a tougher task to stretch his opening stint given he’s starting on softs.

Sergio Perez Max Verstappen Red Bull F1 Abu Dhabi GP

Another option would be for him to back Bottas up to create the required pit window, which would be opened if Bottas was 23 seconds behind Verstappen. But Red Bull still does have a chance of the constructors’ championship, so it would be a bigger sacrifice to compromise Perez’s race than Mercedes faces with Bottas.

And as in the case of Bottas, there’s also the cynical suggestion Perez could be used to take Hamilton out – something that, despite Perez’s occasional robustness on track – would also be out of character for him.

Given neither Bottas nor Perez is likely to have the pace of Hamilton and Verstappen, their involvement in the battle for the drivers’ championship could be perfunctory. But given the race is delicately-balanced, there’s every chance one or the other – or both – could be in the position to have a significant impact.

And with what’s at stake, you can be certain both teams will see their second drivers as a weapon in the armoury. How effective they could be will depend on the race situation that unfolds on Sunday, starting with events on the opening lap.

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