Three races into the F1 season and Valtteri Bottas looks like the only man who can deny his Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton a record-equalling seventh title.
Hamilton dominated Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix from pole position to open up a five-point advantage over Bottas, the winner of the season-opener in Austria.
Part of racing for the best team in the sport and having a six-time world champion as your teammate is the immense pressure that comes with it.
But as the season unfolds, the Finn just needs to go out and push to the maximum in every race, minimise his mistakes and get the best out of his vast potential.
He got the season off to a strong start, with a dominant win at the Red Bull Ring three weeks ago, while Hamilton made a series of rare errors to finish fourth.
However, in the last two race weeks, Bottas has been found wanting.
Finishing a staggering 1.4 seconds off Hamilton in qualifying for the Styrian Grand Prix, his disappointing flying lap led to a fourth-place grid spot.
Although he passed Carlos Sainz quickly and hunted down Max Verstappen, second place was minimum to be expected given the Silver Arrows’ superior pace advantage.
In Hungary last week, after losing out on pole by just under 0.2 secs to Hamilton, Bottas wrecked his chances with a poor start and dropped to sixth on the opening lap.
He fought back well and almost chased down Verstappen after pitting for a third time. But he lost too much time navigating the midfield and traffic.
You have to go back to 2016 when a Mercedes team-mate has properly challenged Hamilton until the season’s end.
Nico Rosberg beat the Stevenage man to the title by five points in Abu Dhabi – and even then, Hamilton was curtailed by reliability issues.
Bottas has only once come within 60 points of the defending champion – back in 2017 – and finished third. In 2019, he finished second but trailed by 87 points.
Of course, coming off second best to one of the greatest drivers of all time is far from a poor feat. Like any driver in the paddock though, Bottas wants to be champion.
Added to that, matters in his personal life would have affected parts of last campaign, splitting with his wife of three years towards the back end of the year.
He has moved on, now in a happy new relationship with cyclist Tiffany Cromwell, spending the winter break in Australia and France.
The mental break away from racing would have done him wonders and he looks refreshed and motivated to tackle another gruelling year.
The break for any driver is ideal, but in a pressure cooker environment like F1, it isn’t long before you hear the outside music seep in again.
With Williams’ George Russell rumoured to be a potential replacement for 2021, there is no guarantee a sterling campaign is going to earn Bottas a contract extension.
Even at his immaculate best, it is unlikely the Nastola native will stop the classy Hamilton from matching Michael Schumacher’s seven world crowns.
The Briton is focused and driven like never before. His skillset and race-craft is unmatched compared to any other driver on the current grid.
However, one can only hope for a genuine battle. And with the W11 looking like yet another racing beast, Bottas certainly can’t be ruled out as a serious contender.
In a condensed racing season and his Mercedes future at stake, this is the year where Bottas’s position at the front of the grid is in its greatest peril yet.
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