Valtteri Bottas’s Formula 1 career has been a rollercoaster ride, to say the least. Starting off with plenty of promise and success with Williams, he was then promoted to Mercedes in 2017 to partner Lewis Hamilton. Whilst he did have successful seasons in 2017, 2019 and 2020, his performances in 2018 and 2021 fell short of the mark. Whether it was through bad luck or him just being well o the pace compared to his teammate, his significantly weaker performances as Mercedes’ second man gave him an unfortunate (and quite frankly undeserved) reputation amongst F1 fans and F1 media alike as somebody who just wasn’t top team material.
Now though, things are changing. Bottas has a new multi-year agreement with Alfa Romeo Racing, replacing fellow countryman Kimi Raikkonen so he could retire from Formula 1. He’s also paired up with Guanyu Zhou, the first Chinese person to drive in Formula 1, as well as long-term reserve driver and fellow F1 veteran Robert Kubica. On the surface, it’s odd that a driver for a top team in a great position as the teammate of a legend of the sport would want to take such a step down. Alfa Romeo is fighting for points, not podiums. Why would Valtteri Bottas want to move down the grid so much compared to where he’s been before?
If all this seems somewhat familiar to you, that’s because it’s happened before. If you’re a Formula 1 fan of my generation or older, you may remember another driver who gained notoriety as a number 2 driver to an all-time great in a top team who then took a step down the grid later on in his career. That man is David Coulthard. Whilst the Drive To Survive generation of fans will mainly know Coulthard as a quirky and entertaining yet insightful TV pundit on Channel 4 and the host of the odd post-race interview on the Formula 1 calendar, in his time as a racing driver he showed a lot of similarities to Bottas. That’s what makes what’s going on with Bottas all the more interesting and, potentially, shows that the Finn has a bright career ahead of him after Mercedes. Why do I think this? Well, let me explain…
First of all, Bottas and Coulthard both started at Williams. Coulthard was thrust into a seat in 1994 following the death of Ayrton Senna, whilst Bottas came into the team in 2013 to replace Ayrton’s nephew Bruno. Both of these entries to the Formula 1 grid were a result of promotions from being a test driver for the team. Both drivers did exceptionally well at Williams, too. Coulthard picked up multiple podiums and a win during his 2 years there, whilst Bottas consistently achieved podium finishes during his 4-year stint. Coulthard also managed to come 3rd in the drivers’ championship in 1995, whilst Bottas managed 4th in 2014.
There is a bit of a difference here, though, in that when Coulthard joined Williams it was a top team that could fight for championships whilst when Bottas joined it was an upper midfield team that could manage podium finishes at best. That doesn’t change the fact though that both of them started their time in F1 at this team and, regardless of the team’s status at the time, they both did exceptionally well during their time there.
Coincidentally, both Coulthard and Bottas were replaced by former Williams drivers when they departed their stints at top teams. Coulthard’s replacement at McLaren was Juan Pablo Montoya, easily one of the greatest racing drivers of all time (and no, that’s not a controversial opinion!), whilst Bottas’s replacement at Mercedes was the massively popular “Mr. Saturday” George Russell. Perhaps not the most important point here, but a very cool coincidence nonetheless!
The Curse of the Second Driver
In 1996, Coulthard switched to McLaren to team up with Mika Hakkinen. Whilst McLaren weren’t championship winners at this point, they would be very soon. The Hakkinen/Coulthard team took McLaren to the top in 1998 and 1999, winning the drivers’ (with Hakkinen) and constructors’ championship back to back in those years. It was a run that made Hakkinen into one of the sport’s greatest drivers, but one where Coulthard began to get a somewhat unfair reputation as somebody who was unable to properly challenge his teammate.
That was something that continued during his partnership with Raikkonen. Like Hakkinen before him, Raikkonen usually considerably outperformed Coulthard. Raikkonen also just missed out on winning the drivers’ championship in 2003, something which was arguably more down to his McLaren being less reliable than Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari more than Raikkonen’s actual driving ability. Even though Coulthard put in some stellar performances (which included winning the Monaco Grand Prix twice!) during his time at McLaren, he still had a reputation as the second man to Hakkinen and Raikkonen.
Does that sound familiar to you? Well, it should, because it’s very similar to what happened to Bottas during his Mercedes days. Bottas’s move to Mercedes installed him as the second driver to Lewis Hamilton, a man who is rightfully considered to be one of the greatest racing drivers of all time (if not the greatest racing driver of all time). Whilst Bottas has put in some brilliant performances during his Mercedes days and has both outqualified and outraced Hamilton on multiple occasions, that reputation of being the second man has never left him. This especially reared its head in 2021, where it took him a good while to score a race win and he openly showed frustrations with Mercedes’ strategy decisions multiple times.
Whilst Coulthard never seemingly had the same kind of frustrations with McLaren as Bottas had with Mercedes, they still both shared an unfair reputation of being nothing more than wingmen to all-time greats. They were seen as the Triple Hs of their respective teams. The guy who worked with The Guy. No wonder both of them eventually left their seemingly great positions in favour of something a bit different…
Moving Down the Grid
Now we come to the part following those top team stints. In 2005, Coulthard did the rather surprising decision of choosing to forego his position at McLaren to take a huge step down the grid at the new Red Bull Racing team. Whilst Red Bull is a top team now, it definitely wasn’t back then. The Austrian energy drinks giant had only just purchased the remaining scraps of the woeful Jaguar F1 team. Formed from Ford’s purchase of the actually fairly competitive Stewart Grand Prix, Jaguar was a team that was all show and no go. Whilst the green and white livery looked fantastic and they had a slew of great drivers including Eddie Irvine, Johnny Herbert and Mark Webber (who would later pair up with Coulthard at Red Bull), Jaguar went from bad to worse as the 2000s rolled on.
By the time of Red Bull’s purchase of the team in 2005, the team really was at rock bottom. That all changed though with Coulthard’s arrival. With Red Bull’s seemingly bottomless pockets and Coulthard’s experience from being at the sharp end of the championship for so many years, the team went from backmarkers to upper midfield contenders by the time of Coulthard’s retirement in 2008. Then, 2 years later, Red Bull won the championship for the first time thanks to their then-wonderkid Sebastian Vettel, who had replaced Coulthard at the team.
Could Bottas’s move to Alfa Romeo cause a similar chain of events? Well, I can’t say for sure, but it could be a possibility. Much like Coulthard, Bottas has years of experience in a top team fighting for championships. Alfa Romeo in 2021 is also in a similar position Red Bull Racing was at the point of the Red Bull purchase. It’s a backmarker team that struggles to fight for points, let alone championships. Could Bottas be that experienced team leader for Alfa Romeo in the same way Coulthard was for Red Bull? I really think he could. Especially if, like Coulthard, he can potentially get a top designer or mechanical genius at Mercedes to defect along with him…
Is it a bit of a stretch to compare Valtteri Bottas to David Coulthard? Maybe it is. They both drove in different eras of Formula 1. Coulthard spent a much longer time in a top team environment than Bottas did, especially considering that Williams were at the top of the grid in the mid-90s as opposed to the upper midfield outfit it was when Bottas was driving there. We also haven’t really seen what Bottas can bring to the table at Alfa Romeo yet. If all these similarities line up though, we could see Bottas use all that experience he’s learned from his time at Mercedes to help push Alfa Romeo from being a team fighting for points to a team fighting for podiums.
In that sense, perhaps Valtteri Bottas really is the David Coulthard of the Drive To Survive generation. A driver who started at a legendary British team, moved to a team at the top of the grid to partner a legendary driver where he was unfairly criticised for being nothing more than a wingman and then moved down the grid to potentially use his experience to build a small, struggling team into a Formula 1 powerhouse. Of course, we’ll have to wait and see to nd out if the final part rings true, but if it does happen it’ll be incredibly exciting to watch!