Though Mercedes has an option to retain Bottas in 2020, team boss Toto Wolff attached it to the requirement that he match teammate Hamilton’s performance after a poor 2018.
The Finn started the season strongly, and whereas in 2018 he failed to win a race, so far this year he has won two grands prix and equalled Hamilton’s tally of four pole positions to sit second on the points table as the Briton’s closest challenger.
But his form has faded during the European summer. He hasn’t won a race since April, and crashes in Germany and Hungary before the midseason break have left him 62 points behind Hamilton with nine races remaining.
It’s now more than a year since Bottas signed his last contract extension, and as a driver who needs to feel he has the team’s confidence to perform, he admitted the uncertainty is affecting his form.
“For sure when contract-wise you’re on the limit it never helps,” he said after the Hungarian Grand Prix, where he finished eighth after a first-lap crash. “Some people might think some drivers perform better under pressure when things are on the limit but for me it doesn’t help.
“I’m not really nervous, but for sure it would be nice to hear some news from the team, to know what they want to do.”
In the Finn’s favour is that he has ensured the team has claimed the constructors championship in his two years racing in silver and is likely to do so again this year — but his fate is more about Mercedes’s long-term future than its immediate needs.
Team leader Hamilton is 34 years old and out of contract at the end of next season, and though the Briton insists retirement isn’t yet on his radar, many are convinced he’s unlikely to race long beyond breaking Michael Schumacher’s record seven world titles, a feat the Briton is odds-on favourite to match next year and break in 2021.
Mercedes has its next-generation line-up prepared, the most senior member of which is highly rated reserve driver Esteban Ocon. The Frenchman undertook a two-year apprenticeship with Racing Point in 2017–18, but a planned move to Renault for 2019 was scuppered when the team made a late move for Daniel Ricciardo, leaving Ocon seatless.
Wolff is adamant his protégé will race in 2020, but with few teams willing to sign Ocon if he were still attached to Mercedes, he’s being forced to contemplate moving the Frenchman into the senior team.
“Valtteri is showing some very strong performances and merits the seat but equally Esteban has shown that in the past and is a great addition to the team,” Wolff said. “For us it’s not only about making the right decision for next year; it’s about looking ahead. This is why we agreed that we will take the decision in August.”
But promoting Ocon after a year on the sidelines risks making Mercedes vulnerable in the constructors standings as he brings himself up to speed — or, if he were immediately on the pace, a feistier character in the sister car would threaten the internal team equilibrium that has enabled Hamilton to reach career-best form and dominate the sport.
“It’s stability and a great personality and a great driver versus giving youth a chance in the car with all the rewards and risks it can bring,” Wolff summarised.
It’s an agonising decision with significant consequences, and while most tip Bottas to retain his seat, Wolff could yet be about to turn the 2020 driver market on its head.