Bottas-Ocon Settled, Hulkenberg The Big Loser

Esteban Ocon and Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes drivers
In the Bottas-Ocon announcements, Nico Hulkenberg has been the biggest loser yet. Will he find a cockpit elsewhere?
  • Questions continue to hang over the second seat at Mercedes despite Valteri Bottas having occupied it since 2016.
  • Even though Ocon may be slightly disappointed to not have grabbed the coveted Mercedes seat, a move to Renault is great news for him.
  • In all, there seem to be no losers in the Bottas-Ocon announcements apart from Nico Hulkenberg, who lost his seat at Renault.

The second seat at Mercedes alongside Lewis Hamilton has captured everyone’s fancy ever since Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement at the end of the 2016 season. Three seasons on, questions continue to hang over that seat – despite Valtteri Bottas having occupied it ever since.

In an era where Mercedes have stamped their dominance in every sense – and on a grid with very few competitive seats up for grabs – it almost seems strange that Mercedes’ second seat did not have a confirmed driver contracted to it for 2020.

The main contenders for the seat were the incumbent Bottas and the young Mercedes driver Ocon. Would Mercedes choose experience and stability, or youth and freshness? Before heading off for summer, Bottas boldly declared that “2019 has been my best season with Mercedes.” Question being, was it good enough for Mercedes? As Bottas revealed, “Going to the summer break and you know once you’ve not signed…anything can happen in this sport.” In fact, he also admitted to having a ‘Plan B’ in case Mercedes didn’t require his services for 2020.

Luckily, it was.

After months of deliberation, Mercedes offered Bottas yet another one-year contract extension – his third such extension. Bottas’ confirmation sealed Ocon’s fate as well as his own, setting into motion a domino effect on the driver market. It was confirmed shortly after that Ocon would be moving to Renault on a multi-year contract.

Why did Mercedes choose Bottas?

Bottas’ extension is Mercedes’ way of rewarding performance with commitment. Some may argue that despite having equal cars, Bottas is trailing teammate Hamilton by a staggering 62-points. However, if one were to keep the results from Germany and Hungary aside, 2019 has seen an upswing in Bottas’ performance – for himself, and against Hamilton. Specifically, in qualifying pace, Bottas is tied with Hamilton (who is a qualifying monster himself) on the total number of pole positions for the season – four. It is also heartening to know that Mercedes were not swayed by Bottas’ poor showing in Germany and Hungary (the two races that preceded the summer break) in their decision. As team boss Toto Wolff declared, “We will not let one race result influence our decision, it’s more about compounding all data and looking at it and making a decision.”

Earlier on, Hamilton’s nemesis and former Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg had said that “Valtteri Bottas didn’t need to win to keep his seat at Mercedes secure. He needed to keep peace with Hamilton.” Bottas has shown that he can do exactly that, while at the same time not threatening Hamilton too much.

Although the team does not publicly admit it, Bottas has perfectly supported Mercedes as a dedicated and consistent number two driver and has time and again been labelled as a ‘wingman’. He has pushed his world champion teammate enough to take Mercedes forward, but not so much that the team culture breaks down.

Bottas has played an important role in the team’s Championship victories, as well as the record-equalling 1-2 finishes the team achieved this season. To quote Toto Wolff, “The results we have achieved together with Valtteri are no coincidence; he has been an integral part of our championship success in the past two seasons.” So why would Mercedes meddle with a winning combination that has only delivered success?

Add to that the fact that Ocon has raced for only two and a half seasons in the sport. He is still an untested quantity, so to speak – for example, he was outpaced by teammate Perez during his Force India season despite being entangled in a serious battle. With Ocon out of the picture (for now), the good news for Bottas is that if he delivers in 2020, he may have an easier time bagging yet another contract extension.

Calling it a “smart decision” by Mercedes, Hamilton was delighted to have Bottas confirmed for yet another year. He shared, “I think continuity is always a great thing. I think we have a great environment that we work in and we’ve created over time.”

When asked why his working relationship with Bottas had been so good, Hamilton joked, “He makes me look good because he looks older than me, even though he’s younger than me, so that’s always a good thing!”

“Honestly, it’s really just the rapport.” Given Hamilton’s difficulties in getting along with teammates (most recently, the feud with Nico Rosberg which tore Mercedes apart). Hamilton’s glowing opinion of Bottas would have influenced Mercedes’ decision.

But what about succession planning?

One of the key arguments for Mercedes choosing Ocon had been succession planning with an eye to the future, also why the team took this long to make up their mind. What lay ahead for the team after Lewis Hamilton, especially since their nearest rivals Ferrari and Red Bull were already investing in young blood, namely Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen respectively?

Despite constant speculation regarding Hamilton’s departure from the sport, the objective truth is that Hamilton will not be stopping any time soon. Given this scenario, Mercedes are wise in letting Ocon gain experience (and make mistakes) at another team. However, there is no official statement on whether Ocon will remain a Mercedes junior driver despite the Renault move.

What does this mean for Ocon?

Even though he may be slightly disappointed to not have grabbed the coveted Mercedes seat, a move to Renault is great news for the Frenchman.

For starters, he finally gets to race again after sitting out the last year – and for any self-respecting racer, that itself is great news. As Ocon told Firstpost during an exclusive interview last year, “Racing in an F1 is always a good thing. So, if you have no choice, then racing for a slower team is already good.”

Let’s also remember that Renault are a Championship-winning team with a respectable heritage in the sport. Racing alongside a driver as talented and dynamic as Daniel Ricciardo will also serve Ocon well. If he is able to match or beat Ricciardo, it will be a great way for Ocon to establish himself.

In all, there seem to be no losers in the Bottas-Ocon announcements apart from Nico Hulkenberg, who lost his seat at Renault thanks to Ocon’s move. In our posts to follow from the Belgian Grand Prix, we will address why Renault took on Ocon and what the future could be for Hulkenberg.

This post was written and published in the build up to the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix on Firstpost

Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

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