The season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix offered Formula 1 a taste of its dream scenario: a tight contest between seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton and heir apparent Max Verstappen in closely matched machinery.
But for Valtteri Bottas the scenario may as well be a nightmare.
Bottas has occupied the plum second Mercedes seat since 2017, in that time taking nine victories and twice finishing runner-up in the championship to solidify his reputation as consistent scorer and capable race winner.
His role strengthening Mercedes also cannot be understated. Replacing the politically volatile Nico Rosberg, Bottas has enabled the German marque to focus all its efforts outwards, and his single-lap speed has been a key contributor to the car’s hitherto unparalleled speed.
But he has also propelled Hamilton to new heights. In 2019 and 2020 in particular Bottas delivered career-best results, which in turn shifted Hamilton into new and unreachable gears.
In a straight intrateam fight Bottas hasn’t been able to keep up with F1’s statistically greatest driver.
The idea of a multiteam fight and the prospect of multiple drivers taking points away from Hamilton ought therefore have presented the forlorn Finn with his long-awaited to chance to claim a breakthrough title. But instead it is condemning him to the dreaded second-driver role.
As much was obvious in Bahrain. Marginally off the pace of the duelling Hamilton and Verstappen, Mercedes handed him a strategy that was most likely to trip up Red Bull Racing but guarantee there’d be no chance of him taking the chequered flag for himself.
Mercedes can’t be blamed for the call. The German marque has only ever been even-handed with its drivers, but when team success is threatened, as it was in Sakhir, it will naturally prioritise the driver with the best chance of victory.
For as long as Red Bull Racing fields the faster car and for as long as Bottas is slower than Hamilton, the Finn is destined to be cast in support of his teammate and his championship potential destined to go unfulfilled.
So what comes next for the Finn?
At just 32 years old this August Bottas is in his prime. He’s a blisteringly quick qualifier and has a wealth of experience working for the most dominant team in F1 history.
But his time at Mercedes is at an end. The marque’s future is with junior driver George Russell, who finishes his three-year apprenticeship with Williams this season and is certain to earn himself a Silver Arrow in 2022. Unless Hamilton makes the unlikely decision to walk away at the end of the year, Russell’s promotion will be at Bottas’s expense.
There a few options realistically open to him. Alpine would drop French driver Esteban Ocon only in the case of serious underperformance. Red Bull Racing and AlphaTauri operate as a closed system. Aston Martin fields Sebastian Vettel on a long-term contract and Lance Stroll as the team owner’s son.
Only Alfa Romeo and Williams, eighth and 10th in last year’s championship, have uncommitted vacancies, and with Williams already in a technical partnership with Mercedes, Bottas rekindling the relationship with his debut team is easiest to imagine.
There are reasons to expect the team to make substantial medium-term progress. A new ownership structure is pumping cash back into the program and an impressively well-credentialed technical team has been installed. Combined with the cost cap and development equalisation measures, Bottas could play a leading role in rebuilding the proud heritage constructor into a midfield force in the style of the rising McLaren team.
It would be an unfathomably large step down the grid fraught with risk, but it might be Bottas’s best shot at carving out a small piece of Formula 1 history for himself after five years in Hamilton’s shadow.