As birthday presents go, watching someone who is trying to take your job stick a Williams on the front row of the grid while you could do no better than eighth in the car everyone wants to drive was probably not very high on Valtteri Bottas’s list.
Had he known on Saturday afternoon that George Russell’s stunning wet weather qualifying display would be converted into a first ever podium finish for the Englishman thanks to Sunday’s Safety Car non-race, then the just turned 32-year-old Finn might have been tempted to blow the candles out on his Belgian Grand Prix there and then and head straight to the airport.
Instead, doughty professional that he is, Bottas stoically endured and, got ready to do battle from 13th on the grid carrying the penalty from his Hungarian Grand Prix first corner indiscretion. It was a position from which, as it transpired, there would be no chance to improve thanks to the inclement weather.
It’s certainly notable, if not ironic, that the last person to qualify a Williams on the front row of the grid was Valtteri Bottas himself in Germany back in 2014 when he was a young buck pushing for a seat at a championship contending team.
After qualifying Lewis Hamilton was quick to emphasise his preference for Bottas as his team mate in 2022 but then he would say that, wouldn’t he? It’s all going well for the world champion who dominates his team but is that attitude ultimately to the advantage of Mercedes as they look to the future?
For Toto Wolff, the management headache is whether to upset the cross garage harmony in a team that still, despite Max Verstappen’s half-point win in Spa, leads both constructor’s and driver’s championships.
The dilemma is that Hamilton is still doing the business, so why change a winning formula?
And yet the great managers know that the secret of success is the timing of the hiring and firing as much as the personnel involved. Hamilton is still producing consistent winning performances but Bottas, despite many tantalisingly tight calls, has been regularly beaten by Hamilton for a while now and, as long as that situation prevails, the question will always be asked: Is Lewis Hamilton actually getting the best out of the car?
Is there a chance that even the peerless Hamilton has relaxed into a tiny comfort zone a few percentage points between beating his team mate and the outright potential of the machinery at his disposal?
Given one shot in the Sakhir GP last season as stand in for Bottas Russell stuck the Mercedes on the front row and was on course for a maiden victory until he was hamstrung by a botched pit stop. Back in the Williams he has made consistent appearances in Q2 on Saturday, the clearest measure of outright pace.
A wet Spa track offered a rare opportunity to drag the unloved Williams further up the grid just as the Mercedes boss approaches decision time and – lo and behold – Russell again grabbed that chance with both hands.
He’s answering every question asked in the affirmative and surely the time has come for a change at Mercedes. Bottas would be a rare asset to any back of the grid team looking for a solid benchmark and consistent top grade performances.
For Russell, his question to Mercedes management will be: If you’re not picking me, then what else, realistically, could you possibly want me to do?
As for the non-event in Spa, well all I can say is that if the same attitude had prevailed at Fuji in 1976, then Niki Lauda would have won four world championships and the movie Rush might never have been made. But it was still the right decision.
As for Lewis Hamilton’s call to give the spectators their money back, I suspect that a few of Belgian race organisers may have blanched at the suggestion. The gate money is, after all, their only source of income at a formula one race.
I suspect a rain check of general admission tickets at such a big and spacious circuit might be possible but they surely need to be able sell the grandstands next year or the race may no longer be viable.
Having lost their boss in tragic circumstances recently, this has been a very challenging time for Spa Francorchamps and the organisation needs support at this time. We definitely don’t need to lose this wonderful circuit from the calendar.