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Formula 1

Wolff outlines Mercedes driver decision logic after ‘wind-up’

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
5 min read

Toto Wolff is waiting to decide between Valtteri Bottas and George Russell for a Mercedes Formula 1 seat next season but has admitted saying it might not happen until the winter was a “wind-up”.

Though Lewis Hamilton is only on a one-year deal for 2021 and yet to outline his own plans for the future, the focus on Mercedes’ line-up for 2022 and beyond has been primarily on who will partner the seven-time world champion.

Bottas has been Hamilton’s team-mate since 2017 and forged a strong working relationship with the Briton, ably supporting Mercedes’ unbroken run of constructors’ titles without disrupting Hamilton in the way Nico Rosberg did previously.

Lewis Hamilton Valtteri Bottas

But while Bottas is arguably the best ‘number two’ driver in F1, he has struggled to assert himself as a clear candidate to be a team leader – whereas Mercedes protege Russell is considered a potential world champion.

Russell starred on a one-off appearance for Mercedes in last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix, which Hamilton missed after contracting COVID-19, and Wolff has made no secret that with Russell now in his final contracted year at the Williams team there is a chance for him to be put in a Mercedes full-time.

“I want to just see Valtteri’s full potential this year, and continue to observe George in driving for Williams and handling their situation” :: Toto Wolff

Both drivers have indicated they would like their futures known in the coming weeks, so Wolff sparked surprise on Friday at the French Grand Prix when he claimed news on the second Mercedes seat would be known “somewhere in the winter I think – I don’t know if it is December, January, February”.

He said that timescale was “highly possible because we have always been committed and loyal to the drivers”.

But Wolff admitted on Saturday at Paul Ricard that “it was a wind-up because we get asked this question so often”.

He added: “So, what’s the delay? Two drivers for one seat. Two drivers that still can have a great career in Formula 1.

“I want to just see Valtteri’s full potential this year, and continue to observe George in driving for Williams and handling their situation.”

Wolff’s suggestion of a “winter” decision never seemed like it could be serious and his admission that it was a joke came as little surprise in the end.

Valtteri Bottas Mercedes Baku 2021

But even Wolff’s sincere remarks after qualifying may raise eyebrows given Bottas has started 85 races for the team and is a known quantity, and Russell has been lauded by Williams despite still not scoring points for the team because he is consistently overachieving in qualifying with a lower-midfield car.

It is fair to want to judge Bottas when he has had a chance to put his best foot forward though, and that has not been the case so far in a weird 2021 season for the Finn.

Yet again, Bottas started the year with ambitions of finally fighting for the world championship but his bid has crumbled quicker than normal thanks to a DNF at Imola – after crashing with Russell of all people during a miserable grand prix – and non-scores in Monaco (where Mercedes botched his pitstop) and Azerbaijan (where he had a bizarre lack of pace all weekend).

Wolff had also said on Friday that if Bottas “drives cars fast on Saturday and Sunday” he will put himself in a strong position for 2022.

What Wolff wants is “consistent performance” and so far Bottas’s season has been the opposite of that. But it could be that, with a bit more time, Bottas will make a compelling case.

If Hamilton’s future is still unknown to Wolff, he can’t commit to the 2022 line-up regardless of whether he’s decided ‘Bottas or Russell?’ or not

If he turns that around and becomes a major part of Mercedes defeating Red Bull and Max Verstappen in both championships, could he save his seat?

That is all Bottas can aim for because presently he seems to be underperforming compared to Wolff’s criteria.

“We need two drivers that are racing right there,” said Wolff.

“If one is having an off weekend or is not, or one DNFs, you need the other to bring it home.

“That’s why it is always important that those are just on the max of their ability.”

George Russell

Many people Russell offers the best chance of that, especially in the long-term.

But Wolff insists there is no decision yet made and even claims that all three variants of the driver combinations – Hamilton/Bottas, Hamilton/Russell and even Russell/Bottas – are options for Mercedes next season.

And that perhaps brings us to the most important element of any Mercedes decision for 2022, which is that Hamilton’s own future is still unknown.

Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton said he would like to hold negotiations with Wolff before the summer break.

Maybe they have started, maybe Hamilton has decided he wants to stay, maybe it is all a done deal.

But if it isn’t then Hamilton’s future is still unknown to Wolff, who therefore can’t commit to the 2022 line-up regardless of whether he’s decided ‘Bottas or Russell?’ or not.

And that makes Hamilton, rather than choosing his likely team-mate, the likeliest reason confirmation of Mercedes’ 2022 driver line-up will have to wait.

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