One Season to Deliver

Heikki Kovalainen. A Finish F1 driver jettisoned in 2008 into a championship winning F1 car after the unexpected departure of a world champion driver to become a teammate of Lewis Hamilton.

12 months later, after a largely unimpressive season in which he fortunately claimed a solitary victory, his stock in the sport was confirmed. A decent driver, a solid number two but nothing more than that.

Fast forward nine years and with the 2017 Formula One season rising over the crest, Kovalainen’s compatriot Valtteri Bottas faces a similarly career defining year.

Will his switch to become Hamilton’s teammate be a success or will he fall the same way as Kovalainen, relegated to an also ran, and out of the sport without anybody really noticing.

A winter switch from Williams to Mercedes has propelled Bottas into a championship winning team, with a championship winning car, with the most ruthless teammate in the sport.

For Bottas, you feel he has one season to nail it, and mark his card as one of the best in Formula One. Anything less and he will become another driver who is solid, who is capable, who may even win the occasional Grand Prix, but one who will never be considered a champion.

When he burst onto the scene in 2013, his pace, his maturity and his composure bellied his relative inexperience. Having won the 2011 GP3 championship, he shrugged off any rustiness to put his teammate Pastor Maldonado in the shade.

Yet for all his pace and impressive race craft, the Williams was rarely a car that he could consistently fight at the front with. Indeed, in his final two seasons with the Grove outfit, his stock seemed to decline as he failed to comprehensively beat teammate Felipe Massa, a fine racer but one whose career was approaching its end.

Now Bottas has been given a chance to play week-in week-out with the big boys, following the surprise retirement of World Champion Nico Rosberg.

But Bottas has one shot.

If he, as many expect him, is beaten by Hamilton in that first season, then he can expect to see out the reminder of his time at Mercedes as a number two driver. It will never say so in the contract, but in the approaches of the team and maybe even the drivers psyche, they will know that Hamilton is on top.

Chances at these top teams do not come around too often. Although McLaren have struggled in recent seasons, the resources and stature match any in the sport. Sergio Perez, a man in the mould of Bottas, tried and failed to establish himself in one season with the team. Kevin Magnussen similarly did a solid job, but did not shine.

At Red Bull, Danniil Kvyat got barely more than a season before the team realised he wasn’t the equal of his teammate and wasn’t championship winning material.

When you look down the years at drivers who have been dropped into a championship contending car in their first season with a team, they had to get up to speed and fast or their exit would be faster.

Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and Lewis Hamilton all had to get on the pace immediately, and as such their careers and their status within the sport were secure.

The Giancarlo Fisichellas and Mark Webbers of the world failed to assert their authority and craft early, and were always relegated to second best. Nico Hulkenberg has never even got a chance, despite being widely lauded for his pace.

I believe Nico Rosberg always knew Hamilton was a faster, better driver. Rosberg got clever in his final season, winning the mental battle, getting the right engineers on his side of the garage and enjoying a heavy dose of luck along the way.

Does Bottas believe Hamilton is a better, faster driver? I genuinely don’t think he does. One season of being out-qualified and out-fought on the track and he’ll soon change his mind.

That Bottas’ career has slowed at Williams, he can consider himself fortunate that his management and Rosberg’s retirement have tessellated tremendously to present him with the opportunity of a lifetime.

He’s now got to get himself up to speed and get his elbows out before the flag even drops in Melbourne next month.

Or we could be witnessing another Heikki.