Valtteri Bottas finished fifth at the weekend's Arctic Lapland Rally in Finland, winning a stage along the way. Maurice Hamilton looks at why such achievements deserve respect and encourages Bottas to use the momentum to challenge Lewis Hamilton this year...
Respect to Valtteri Bottas for taking part in -- and finishing -- the Artic Lapland Rally last week. The two-day event in Finland may have been in familiar snowbound conditions for Bottas but he was entering new territory when it came to learning about the full-house M-Sport WRC Ford Fiesta and the very different challenge presented by rallying.
Bottas would have been assisted greatly by having Timo Rautiainen in the right-hand seat, the former championship-winning co-driver (with Marcus Gronholm) doing the necessary timing and bookkeeping to allow Valtteri to focus fully on the driving. (I was going to say Rautiainen also provided a vital calming influence but, with such an undemonstrative driver, you get the impression the roles might have been reversed!)
Avoiding the novices' trap of failing to read the white-out conditions and piling into a snow bank proved to be a respectable achievement as he set a fastest stage time and finished fifth overall. Had Bottas stuffed the Fiesta, the headlines would have triggered the usual social media sarcasm and ended up forming the framework for an F1 career obituary. Happily, this diverse driving experience in such a complex and quick car would have been fun and blanked out lingering thoughts about how his proper job failed to deliver last year.
The 2018 results are best consigned to history; zero wins for Valtteri to 11 for Lewis Hamilton in the other Mercedes. But for debris caused by someone else's accident, Bottas would have won in Baku, a result that would have put him at the top of the championship for the first time in his life and had a marked effect on his personal dynamic during the remainder of the season. Then there was a win for the taking in Russia until team orders prioritised his team-mate. Despite this being late in the season with Lewis holding a 40-point lead going into Sochi, Mercedes were taking no chances.
Perhaps allowing their man to drive a Ford in front of the cameras last week was part of the pay-back; either way, it was a welcome move in these contractually constrained and politically correct times and will have done Bottas no harm at all with the new F1 season just eight weeks away.
With Ferrari regrouping so effectively in recent weeks and the thought of Charles Leclerc either crushing Sebastian Vettel or spurring on the former champion to the level he ought to be capable of, Mercedes don't need Valtteri's potentially effective 'A' game to be undermined by extraneous doubt and memories of 2018.
It's going to be difficult enough for Bottas to narrow the average 0.16s he was down on Lewis in overall pace (which was not as inadequate as it may seem given Hamilton had raised his game to such a stunning new level). But Valtteri also has to contend with knowing his contract was extended for just one year (Lewis is signed until the end of 2020) with the spectre of Esteban Ocon and George Russell hovering expectantly in the background.
Bottas can only hope that Hamilton's exceptional consistency and pace might suffer from the effect of such a long and potentially debilitating period at the top of his game. But that's been said before. Either way, it's a crucial and very tough year ahead for Valtteri.
If it doesn't work out, at least he now knows about the fun to be had in a decent rally car.