Valtteri Bottas has been handed a reprieve in his bid not to be crushed into dust in the 2020 Formula 1 title fight. It was not done in quite the circumstances that were expected, even though many thought Russia would give him a chance to strike back from his recent defeats.
Yet, it clearly made no difference to Bottas, who delivered a prompt, curt, and quite striking message to his critics after the race.
“Yes! Haha! Fuck yeah!” Bottas yelled when he crossed the line to win, before taking a few seconds to calm himself and add: “I think again it’s a nice moment to thank my critics. To whom it may concern: Fuck you.”
Further round his celebratory in-lap, Bottas finished with: “Never give up.”
Now the question is whether Bottas will justify that in a more normal race at the front in Germany this weekend.
Bottas’s radio message was a reprisal of his post-race celebration in Australia 2019 when a crushing performance led to the first “To whom it may concern: Fuck you.”
That message followed what remains arguably his most convincing F1 victory, sparked the ‘Bottas 2.0’ train that still continues today, and was all in response to his disappointing end to the 2018 season that caused some, including a long-time sponsor, to lose faith.
“I just don’t get the people who have the need to criticise people” :: Valtteri Bottas
Because the Russia celebration was a verbatim repeat of that message, the circumstances have been conflated as well. Surely, Bottas didn’t think his Sochi win, at least facilitated with greater ease if not inherited because of Mercedes team-mate and title rival Lewis Hamilton’s time penalties early on, was in the same mould?
It’s fair to say it left a few people unconvinced.
They’re not necessarily inclined to believe that this was the emphatic show of brilliance that maybe his post-race message portrayed. And despite his protestations to the contrary, they probably don’t think he’s in the title fight either, even though he clawed 11 points back on Hamilton, with a victory and fastest lap while Hamilton was only third.
A brief look at the nature of the race, and the way the championship standings look, show why it’s fair to be sceptical about Bottas’s reaction, and his belief.
He’s still 44 points behind Hamilton. He won the race after failing to pass Hamilton at the start, waiting until he had to serve his time penalties and easing clear of a fundamentally slower Red Bull.
That is how it looks in simple black and white terms, which doesn’t seem to merit the sweary riposte to his critics Bottas delivered. And therefore there’s not a huge amount of confidence that it will really mean anything in the bigger picture because surely Bottas is in for a rude awakening when he does go toe-to-toe with Hamilton next time.
Except… there is something important to take away from this. And it’s rooted in what Bottas’s “fuck you” was actually a reference to.
“I just don’t get the people who have the need to criticise people,” Bottas explained afterwards.
“There’s been people telling me that I should not bother, I should give up. But how I am, I will never do that. So, I just wanted to, again, send my best wishes to them. It just came out.”
Bottas is not responsible for the fact he didn’t have to overcome Hamilton in a full straight fight. He can only race what’s in front of him
The real targets were people who think he should pack it in, having fallen 55 points behind Hamilton before the victory. There is something in that.
Bottas was trying to get across that his victory was proof he shouldn’t give up. Yes, he didn’t do a great job in qualifying, but he still felt relatively upbeat after Saturday, because he’d been quick all weekend, and it just didn’t come together for him in Q3, like it did for his team-mate. And yes, being beaten by Verstappen in qualifying was poor. But Red Bull also believes it was Verstappen’s best-ever lap for the team, which at least makes the defeat reconcilable with Bottas not producing a proper effort.
Then he had one job on the Sunday, and that was to get ahead of Verstappen at the start and be in a position to pressure Hamilton, given Hamilton’s difficult race conditions. Initially, this was about the tyres they were on at the start, with Hamilton on the softs after his qualifying troubles. But when Hamilton picked up his time penalties because of the pre-race practice start controversy, Bottas just needed to be in a position to assume the lead.
Bottas is not responsible for the fact he didn’t have to overcome Hamilton in a full straight fight. So it would be unfair to take it away from him on these grounds. He can only race what’s in front of him.
And once Hamilton was out of the way, Bottas was genuinely fast, and did the damage when he needed to in and around the pitstops to put a massive distance between himself and Verstappen, and then just manage the race from there.
So, in terms of all of the circumstances Bottas was in control of, it was a job well done. He admitted afterwards that “things definitely did go my way today, they can’t go against you forever” and a mix of being “lucky” and feeling it was “well earned”.
The upshot is that Bottas views this as the source of “a confidence boost and good momentum”.
“I hope I can encourage people not to give up because that’s the biggest mistake you can do in your life” :: Valtteri Bottas
It might be viewed as something of a placebo. It wasn’t the swashbuckling, Hamilton-toppling performance Bottas wanted it to be, or perhaps even made it sound like it was with his radio call. But it can have the same effect.
“The main thing is I’m confident, when I come to every race weekend,” said Bottas. “I’m confident and I believe I can do it and that’s how I’m always going to be.
“You have to have that mindset so yeah, I’m glad. Even qualifying was tough, I didn’t give up, I looked at it positively, I knew there would be opportunities and things came to me.
“I hope I can encourage people not to give up because that’s the biggest mistake you can do in your life.”
So, was there anything within that performance, or within the championship picture it has contributed to, that justified the initial outburst?
Well, a Bottas phoning it in probably would have lost to Verstappen last weekend, and therefore would not have won. The Mercedes does have a big advantage. So, if you were going to be very, very harsh, you could say that a second-rate driver may win in that car. But that undervalues the level required to be at the very top in Formula 1.
The main point here is that we saw at the end of 2018, when Hamilton was still capable of poles and wins, Bottas faded into meek mediocrity within the three leading teams and ended the season with a run of four fifth-place finishes and fell to fifth in the championship. It reduced him to something of a shell of a person who just wanted to escape.
That is what he risked again this season, with the relentless pummeling he’s got from Hamilton in a title fight that he genuinely thought he was going to be in all season long.
It could have cut him to his core, it could have prompted him giving up. Do not underestimate the psychological impact of seven defeats to Hamilton in eight races.
But as he refuted at Sochi, he’s not going to let his head drop. And that was really what the radio message was about. It was to everyone saying he’s not good enough to do this, he should just stop, there’s no point in trying.
His defiance might have sounded over the top in Russia but there is still a season on the line for Bottas
Don’t confuse that with a ‘get in, I’m amazing, I’ve just smashed everyone on merit!’. Because that’s not what he said. And it’s not really relevant to the particular point of criticism he was actually responding to, it just came across badly and slightly weird – probably worse than he intended but it was a release of emotion after a difficult run.
“It’s been so close many times and I feel my race pace, especially this season, has been quite a bit better than any season before,” he said.
“I can’t say it’s been frustrating but it’s been a bit annoying, that it’s been close but nearly there.
“Things definitely did go my way [at Sochi], as I have been saying that things can’t go against you forever. It’s definitely really satisfying to get the win.”
The true test of whether Bottas’s middle finger to critics was merited will be if it takes him to a place in himself and in terms of confidence that lets him fight Hamilton properly. Then, it’s great – it’s exactly what he needs to turn up at the Nurburgring, to turn up at the races for the rest of the season, and give it everything. To be strong enough to not be pummelled into oblivion and defeat, to give us a show every weekend by fighting Hamilton, and to chip away in the championship.
Russia was a rare big qualifying defeat this season. Bottas’s average deficit is around 0.2% – under two tenths of second over a hypothetical 90-second lap. In five of the 10 sessions the gap has been less than a tenth, three times in Hamilton’s favour and twice for Bottas.
So, even if we suspect going into a qualifying session that Hamilton will get on top of Bottas, we don’t know for sure. And if Bottas gets a bit feistier, if he takes that heat post-race which we only really see time to time, that can transform his prospects.
From a title perspective, Sochi was significant. He took 11 points out of Lewis which is the most is taken out of him since Austria and only the second time he’s beaten him since Austria. It’s undone a small chunk of the damage that has been done relentlessly for two months.
Trimming it to 44 points instead of 55 also makes a Hamilton nightmare day more significant as he doesn’t have two race wins in the pocket now.
Yes, it’s still a mammoth task. Unless Hamilton hits trouble, Bottas probably needs to win six of the remaining seven races, if not all seven, to really have a chance. But it can be done.
It’s a flicker of hope that can trigger something in Bottas’s mentality and give him the necessary motivation. He doesn’t need to look at it as ‘I need to win every race between now and the end of the season’. He needs to turn up to the Nurburgring absolutely at 100%, confident he can beat Hamilton, do it, and take seven or eight points out of him. And then regroup, turn up at Algarve ready to give 100%, think he can beat Hamilton, go out and beat Hamilton, and take another seven or eight points out of the lead.
It needs to be a race-by-race approach, and that’s only achievable if Bottas retains race-by-race motivation. It’s the justification for continuing.
His defiance might have sounded over the top in Russia but there is still a season on the line for Bottas. And the second he accepts that defeat is the moment that his belief in himself is shattered. He retains that belief. He thinks he can beat Hamilton. He thinks it’s, at the very least, not worth giving up trying.
Proving that again at the Nurburgring, and beyond, will be worthy of a ‘fuck you’. And it might just save a season currently down to its dying embers.