Mercedes boss Toto Wolff says Valtteri Bottas needs to challenge for the Formula One title in 2018, and has backed his driver to return stronger in his sophomore season with the reigning world champions.
Bottas endured a mixed first campaign with Mercedes and finished 2017 third in the drivers' standings. Despite recording four pole positions, and claiming three impressive victories in Russia, Austria and Abu Dhabi, the Finn labelled his season as "disappointing" after ending up nearly 60 points behind teammate and world champion Lewis Hamilton.
A dip in form following the summer break, coupled with a resurgent Hamilton -- who went on to win five of the last nine races of the year -- saw Bottas' early hopes of making it a three-way fight in the championship evaporate. But Wolff reckons Bottas has what it takes to mount a serious title challenge in 2018.
"That's what he has to do [challenge for the title]," Wolff told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "We have seen some highlights in Sochi and in Austria and then after the summer Lewis came back very strong and the step that Lewis made up, Valtteri went backwards.
"He recovered at the end of the season and he is a Finn with a strong never-give-up mentality -- Sisu -- and I expect him to come back strong with all he learning he has done during the season against the best Formula One driver of the current day and age.
"I think he's the first one who wants to prove it to himself," Wolff added. "He knows the deficits he had during the season and he knows where he had advantages. Valtteri, I've known for ten years and ten years ago a little kid showed up in the winter in my office with a little pullover, no jacket, no father with him, and he has a super-strong will, an iron will and character, and I have no doubt we will see a better Valtteri in 2018."
Former Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg said "messing" with Hamilton's head was crucial to beating the Briton to the 2016 title, but Wolff does not believe Bottas will resort to playing similar psychological mind games in an attempt to get under Hamilton's skin.
"That's not at all Valtteri's style. Valtteri wants to do it on the track in the best possible way and he has driving skills that have worked out for him at certain circuits where he was the one that set the benchmark. Valtteri will improve his weaknesses and continue to work on his strengths.
"What he wants is to be benchmarked against a four-time world champion. He's brutally honest with himself, if he can step up and challenge Lewis he has his place among the greatest drivers in Formula One. If he doesn't he's going to know it and there is no excuse."
Interview conducted by Laurence Edmondson