Analysis: Is Bottas a Mercedes stop-gap, or its long-term future?

While few in Formula 1 circles were taken by surprise about this week’s final confirmation of the driver shuffles that got Valtteri Bottas in at Mercedes, it was actually the things we were not told that were more intriguing for some.

For despite Mercedes sending out an 1100-word press release to confirm who would be replacing Nico Rosberg, what was missing was the one element that perhaps mattered most: how long was Bottas’ contract for?

Unlike when Nico Rosberg’s planned two-year deal for 2017/2018 was announced last summer, or back in 2015 when Lewis Hamilton’s three year extension to take him to the end of 2018 was revealed, this time there was not one mention of how long Mercedes’ latest signing was locked down for

The accepted wisdom is that it is a one-year deal with options beyond that – but Mercedes said it was unwilling to expand on exactly what had been agreed because its policy was to not ‘share contractual details in public’. A slight shift in stance then from its previous driver announcements.

A one-year deal though is nothing to be too surprised about though. For why would Mercedes want to commit for more than one season to a driver that has not yet proven himself in a top-line car against a top-line rival like Lewis Hamilton?

But is a single year deal a sign of lack of conviction, proof that Bottas is only a stop-gap solution before big hitters like Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso become available, or is it just a sensible move for both sides?

Hard talks

Of course it is all too easy to interpret the decision to only commit for one year as a sign of lack of faith in Bottas, or that the real interest longer term is elsewhere – especially with Mercedes’ junior drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon waiting in the wings.

But to judge it like that would be overlook just how much effort Mercedes made to get Bottas out of his Williams deal and locked in at Brackley for this year.

The complicated web that involved Williams, Sauber and Mercedes, plus Bottas, Felipe Massa and Pascal Wehrlein was certainly not the work of the moment – and there were times over the month-long period of negotiations when the whole thing would have come crashing down.

It’s not the kind of push made for a ‘stop-gap’ solution. Plus, it was clear in the hours after Rosberg had dropped his bombshell retirement announcement that the team had two men right at the top of its shortlist: Wehrlein and Bottas. No one else was really of much interest.

Wehrlein’s lack of experience counted against him, but Bottas was the right fit: well versed in F1, and clearly fast but never having had the machinery to fight regularly at the front. But just as important for a team that has put so much focus on internal ‘spirit’ is that he also came with the right attitude off track.

For while Mercedes’ senior management are aware of the pitfalls of emotional men like Vettel and Alonso – especially when potentially partnered with Hamilton – Bottas has always been a calm figure.

As Wolff himself said after confirming the Bottas deal : “Valtteri fits extremely well to our team. As a driver he is very fast, but he has also his heart in the race place, and the right morals. He shares our values, passion and is modest and humble and hard working. He has all the right ingredients.”

The ultimate proof though – of turning his talents into wins on track – is something that cannot be bought right now and can only be shown over the next few months.

Wolff talked about the time having come now for Bottas to step up and prove himself, and the driver himself equally knows he must now show what he is capable of.

Under circumstances like that, the length of his deal ultimately matters little when it comes down to the nitty gritty of the season ahead.

In F1, we know only too well that contracts are not water tight. And, as Rosberg well showed in the days after the title showdown, minds and circumstances can change and if one party does not want a deal to continue, then everything is off.

Whether Bottas had a one, two or three year contract matters little – because if he does not live up to expectations this year, then you can be sure that the vultures will be circling as rivals make a bid for his seat for 2018.

To answer on whether Bottas is a stop-gap or a long-term part of Mercedes is impossible to say, because it’s not written right now.

Matters will ultimately be decided by how he does on track. Success will breed success and secure his future; some wobbles and the 2018 driver market will explode.

No pressure then – but he is at least assured of one thing: there is no better place to prove that you deserve a future at Mercedes than actually sitting in the car already.