An established Formula 1 driver who’s rated highly but not as an elite great – at a team with a firmly-embedded proven champion team leader – therefore there as a high-quality support act rather than with any expectation of a title victory.
That’s how Sergio Perez has been seen for most of his time at Red Bull so far.
That’s how Valtteri Bottas was seen at Mercedes, too.
One of them never escaped that bracket. The other is trying very hard to right now.
The moment in the spotlight Perez is currently having after his defeats of Max Verstappen in Baku brought him back to within six points of his team-mate in the championship feels like a marginally more realistic hint of a title bid than any of Bottas’ occasional early-season upsets over Lewis Hamilton did, but there’s plenty that’s comparable about their circumstances.
When Bottas was asked in Miami what advice he’d give Perez about taking on Verstappen for a title given his own experience of trying unsuccessfully to topple Hamilton at Mercedes, he responded “I don’t really know, I’ll think about it”.
But he had already hit upon a key point when giving an earlier answer about Perez’s situation.
“We need to get everybody on board,” said Bottas – the ‘we’ in question being the lower-profile driver’s side of the garage.
“Get the team to believe we can win.
“I’m sure he’s working on all the areas and it is the momentum in the end. When you have a good run of good results, then the whole team is on board and that’s good for everything.”
That’s a hint that overcoming any internal scepticism might be the springboard Bottas never quite managed at Mercedes. He suggested teams genuinely keep their options open about which driver will be their title hope at first, but there’s a cut-off point where it’s clear who is the priority.
“I feel like yes until a certain point in the season, it’s just about how different teams work,” Bottas said when asked if teams really could give totally equal title opportunities.
“How they decide, when they decide, points difference or whatever. But yes, they can still give both drivers the same.
“I definitely felt that I had the opportunity every year but then at some point there was a decision.”
Bottas is sure Verstappen, Perez and Red Bull are far from that point in 2023 right now, though.
“It’s still early in the year, he still has a great chance of beating Max,” Bottas added.
“I would imagine at some point they’ll decide who it’s going to be. But it’s not yet.”
The Race says
On the latest episode of The Race F1 Podcast, Ben Anderson gave his take on how the Perez vs Verstappen situation compared to Bottas vs Hamilton.
It’s very easy to get over-excited this early in a season.
How many times did Valtteri Bottas start strongly against Lewis Hamilton when they were Mercedes team-mates and Mercedes was still title favourite?
Bottas might win a race or two from the first four, talk about himself as improved – Bottas 2.0, 3.0, whatever – and a title contender. And then inevitably Hamilton would just streak away as the season wore on.
Bottas was very much there to back Lewis up and help Mercedes in the constructors’ championship. It’s worth remembering that that’s why Perez is at Red Bull. He’s not there to stake his claim to be the number one driver or to usurp Verstappen.
It’s going to take a very dramatic drop-off from Verstappen or some kind of sustained run of really bad fortune for Perez to have a chance at winning the championship.
As the questions to Bottas about Perez’s title bid went on, thoughts moved to the realisation Bottas ultimately had. As he put it ahead of the 2022 season, his first with Alfa Romeo after losing his Mercedes seat: “You always meet – eventually – someone who’s better than you and you need to accept it.”
In Miami Bottas recalled that it was “very difficult” to do that and that it took until his final year as Hamilton’s team-mate.
“Probably in 2021 I could admit that Lewis was overall faster,” he said. “It took five years to accept. But it’s not easy, as a driver you want to be the best.”
And, Bottas was asked, you start off believing you are the best.
“Of course,” he replied.
And then, you discover that you’re not?