SEPTEMBER 7, 2012
Analysis: Bottas in the frame at McLaren?
By Tony Dodgins (@TonyDodgins)
With much speculation surrounding the future of Lewis Hamilton at Monza, just as interesting a question as whether Hamilton will move to Mercedes, is what McLaren will do if he does. By Tony Dodgins (@TonyDodgins)
A glance down the current entry list reveals no obvious solution as to who the team would move for to partner Jenson Button in 2013 and beyond.
In 2010 team principal Martin Whitmarsh investigated renewing the association with Kimi Raikkonen, a Mclaren driver between 2002-6, until he seized the opportunity to sign Button. Souces suggest that McLaren is not convinced that Raikkonen is as potent a force as he was in the mid noughties, and Kimi is believed to be tied into Lotus by a performance clause in his existing contract.
Then there are the two Force india drivers: Nico Hulkenberg and Paul Di Resta. While both are strong, it is perhaps debatable whether either would be viewed as the future by McLaren.
A dark horse, and perhaps slightly more than that, is Williams test driver Valtteri Bottas. The 23-year-old Finn is backed by Williams executive director Christian 'Toto' Wolff, who is part of his management group and has an investment stake in his F1 career.
Bottas has impressed Williams with his Friday morning FP1 performances alongside Pastor Maldonado this year (in which he participate in all but four of the season's GPs) and earned solid endorsement from Williams chief operations engineer Mark Gillan for his handling of the FW34 in the Silverstone Young Driver Test immediately folowing the British GP.
"He was very quick and didn't put a foot wrong," Gillan said, while adding that he considered Bottas's potential in similar vein to Mika Hakkinen's, whom he worked with at McLaren in the late nineties, when Hakkinen won back-to-back world titles at Woking.
Gillan was at that point McLaren's principal operational aerodynamicist, as well as a man who had won Northern Ireland's Employers Federation Trophy for inventing a haemodynamic control device to prolong heart bypass patients' life expectancy. The point being that if Gillan, an experienced, grounded engineer not prone to hyperbole, holds Bottas in such high regard, his opinions may well be given currency by Whitmarsh, his former boss.
It is worth mentioning at this juncture that Bottas's day-to-day management is conducted by Hakkinen and Didier Coton, who has a long relationship with McLaren dating back to the racing days of business partner Keke Rosberg and then Hakkinen himself. On the one hand, rather awkward, perhaps, is that Coton was also brought in to oversee Hamilton in 2012!
With that in mind, if there is a man in the paddock who will know the exact status of Hamilton's 2013 negotiations, it's Coton.
So, we asked Toto Wolff in the Monza paddock if he had been talking to Whitmarsh about Bottas?
"Not seriously," he smiled.
But you have spoken?
Another coy smile...
Wearing a Williams hat, Wolff admits that he would love to keep Bottas at the team. That, however, may not be practical. Pastor Maldonado's financial input through PDVSA is vital to Williams and, for a variety of reasons, the team may not be keen to displace Bruno Senna. Bottas, on the other hand, is ready for a full race seat.
The potential may be there for a deal similar (but probably not quite so luctrative!) as that concluded by Peter Sauber when he sold Kimi Raikkonen to McLaren just over a decade ago.
From Hakkinen through Raikkonen, McLaren did very nicely with its quick Finns for a decade and a half. As someone commented in Italy, "with Valterri they'd be getting a very quick, highly focused, extremely fit individual who lives with a disciplined Olympic swimmer (Emilia Pikkarainen) and whose head would not be turned by showbiz..."
One possible stumbling block is that, traditionally, McLaren has not taken on a Formula 1 rookie, although that particular mould was broken in spectacular fashion by Hamilton himself in 2007. Back then, however, Lewis was able to come into the season with around 10,000 miles of testing under his belt. Today, of course, there are three pre-season tests, and that's it.
Bottas, however, is not a total rookie on the back of his Williams test driving, which has have given him prior experience of 80% of the circuits on the calendar.
And, if there is one team with which Frank Williams, as well as Wolff, would have few qualms about conducting a spot of business, it's probably McLaren.
When you start to think logically, Bottas and McLaren is far from daft...