As the rain fell in Turkey on Sunday morning, many wouldn’t have tipped Valtteri Bottas to return to the top of the podium. Bottas’ patchy form in wet conditions would have given him some cause for concern with high-profile incidents at Imola and the Hungaroring a likely dent to his confidence.
Wet conditions haven’t been Bottas’ best friend during his five-year stint with Mercedes, and with the lingering thoughts of Turkey 2020, when he spun six times while being lapped by teammate Lewis Hamilton on his way to finishing a miserable 14th, could he banish the demons of one year ago?
“It seems like every race now it’s raining,” Bottas joked ahead of the race. Mercedes had a clear advantage over the Red Bull in the dry but the wet conditions are often an equaliser.
With Verstappen in second, Bottas had to deal with the feisty Dutchman in a head-to-head on his own. With the conditions damp, and Hamilton down in 11th due to an engine penalty, all signs were pointing towards another race belonging to Verstappen, but Bottas had other ideas.
How Bottas did it
While Bottas has struggled in wet-weather conditions in the past, Istanbul Park’s high grip track surface made for a unique experience. A stark contrast to a year ago, drivers weren’t struggling to keep it on the track with few mistakes throughout the 58-lap race.
Light drizzle made intermediates a no-brainer for the race start, but with no sun, the track remained damp for long periods meaning it was important that drivers didn’t destroy their tyres so they didn’t need to pit until it was time for slick tyres. Bottas maintained his lead from pole position ahead of Verstappen, quickly pulling out a one-second gap before upping it to three seconds.
The first crucial moment in Sunday’s race came when he had a snap of oversteer out of Turn 1, just before he started to come up behind Nikita Mazepin in the Haas. With his lead reducing and standing at just over two seconds, it seemed that Verstappen had looked after his intermediates, while Bottas burned them up, trying to extend his lead at the front – something that we saw on countless occasions up against Hamilton in the dry last year.
But no, Bottas was in complete control, upping his pace shortly after and pulling out a six-second lead.
“The car has been good in any conditions this weekend and that makes things easier but I could really control; it and I would say the key thing today was the tyre management and not to kill the tyres at the beginning of the stint and trying to play the long game,” Bottas said in the post-race press conference.
Bottas managed his tyres to perfection with the clean air at the front allowing him to dictate the pace while preserving tyre life. Mercedes called him in for new intermediates on Lap 38, one lap after Verstappen to come out in second as Leclerc had yet to stop.
It was another decisive moment in the race as Leclerc was running on the ‘inter-slick’ (intermediates that no longer had their grooves and resembled a slick tyre) and the track being too dry for fresh intermediates meaning Bottas and Verstappen couldn’t close on the Ferrari driver, initially at least. The drying track meant the ‘inter-slick’ was seemingly viable hence why Hamilton was adamant about staying out and repeating what he did in 2020.
With Leclerc enjoying a sizeable lead at the front, Bottas simply couldn’t go for it as he slowly brought his tyres into the right window.
“When I was gaining to Charles, he was still on his first set of tyres,” he explained. “He was really quick on the parts that were a bit drier and I was quicker on the parts that were a bit wetter because I had fresh tyres and just when I was closing onto him my tyres started to grain quite a bit. But I was still catching him obviously and then obviously my tyres grained to the point that they were slicks again and then they were fine.
“There was a bit of a pace difference and he had a couple of lock-ups and when I got him he had a bit of a snap in the last corner and that helped.”
Bottas retook the lead on Lap 46 with a lunge on Leclerc into Turn 1. It was the perfect race up until that point.
With Verstappen settling for second, Bottas extended his lead to over 14 seconds, reeling off two fastest laps to demonstrate the pace advantage he had at Istanbul Park. The Finn was in unstoppable form.
“Very sweet, actually,” he added. “Overall, I think it was one of my best races in terms of how it went from beginning to the end. To some people it could have looked easy but it’s far from that in these conditions.
“You can’t do any mistakes and it’s quite easy to do mistakes in the conditions and when it’s drying, when there is only one dry line. Just everything went smoothly which I’m very glad [about].”
Banishing his demons
Bottas had finally ended his year-long wait for a grand prix victory – the 10th of his career and his first of the season. Redemption you could argue, 11 months on from arguably the worst day of his career at the very same track.
The 32-year-old’s resilience and ability to bounce back from adversity has to be admired. Since his switch to Alfa Romeo was announced, no driver has scored more points than Bottas with his performances at Monza and in Istanbul up there as some of the best of his nine-year F1 career.
“In terms of my race I had probably the worst race of my career here last year and now one of the best, so a lot better,” he commented.
“It’s satisfying, of course, winning and having a good race, that’s for sure. And like I said earlier, last time around here, I lost count how many spins I had in the race, I think it was five or six, so at least I didn’t spin today, so that’s a step forward.”
Role in the title race
With just six points now separating Verstappen and Hamilton at the top of the championship, every point is so important heading into the final six rounds of 2021. Bottas’ role in the title race cannot be underplayed as he took eight points off the Dutchman with his win and fastest lap in Turkey.
Bottas might be on his way to Alfa Romeo for 2022 but he’s keen to bow out from Mercedes with a fifth constructors’ championship to his name while aiding Hamilton to a record-breaking eighth crown.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was full of praise for him after the race, labelling it a “10 out of 10 performance”, even suggesting that he expects Bottas to add to his win tally before the season is out.
“It may not be his last this season because what he has delivered this weekend was just unbelievable,” Wolff said. “Started with an easiness from pole, pulled away, was the quickest man on track, best in terms of tyre management, always under control and scored fastest lap.
“This is a 10 out of 10 and can play a vital role in the constructors’ championship but also in supporting Lewis, because today, only Valtteri’s performance prevented Max to score eight more points.”
Can he do it again?
Bottas will be hoping to add a couple of more wins to his name before he exits Mercedes at the end of the year. Even though Alfa Romeo’s competitiveness for next year is unknown, it’s likely to be his last year of fighting regularly for the major honours in F1.
Remarkably, Bottas hasn’t taken back-to-back victories in his career, but the Circuit of the Americas is a Mercedes stronghold, winning every race in the hybrid era excluding 2018, with Bottas winning in 2019.
Given Hamilton’s situation in the title race, it’s unlikely Bottas will be allowed to beat his teammate on merit, but as in Turkey, he needs to be there to pick up the pieces, should they present themselves.
“Well, I’ve had the confidence always really, but it’s nice to have a win and the reminder that you can win races,” Bottas said. “It’s been a while, like I said. But, to be honest, after Monza I’ve been feeling very relaxed in any case and been able to just focus only on driving and for sure that helps.”