Is Valtteri Bottas a dead man walking?
Last year, smart money would have been on Valtteri Bottas and not Kimi Raikkonen to be the first Finn to win a race in 2018. Taking the excuse of bad luck out of the equation, the stark contrast in the performances of Bottas with the eventual champion and teammate Lewis Hamilton makes him the driver who is most vulnerable even before a single lap has been raced in the 2019 Formula 1 season.
This is because, not only has his replacement been identified, he is already in the team as a reserve driver - Frenchman Esteban Ocon. Plus, Ocon is managed by Toto Wolff. Being managed by the Mercedes chief is also a huge reason why Bottas got to race with Mercedes after Nico Rosberg announced his shock retirement in late 2016.
While he has had a reasonably good first year, the sophomore year has been disastrous. No wins from 21 races in a Mercedes is a poor result and there is no way to paint this fact favourably. And a more challenging task is to follow.
He has been clearly told by the management that he needs to match Hamilton in qualifying and win races to justify his racing seat.
The 5-time world champion has raised his level to a career high in 2018 and the current evidence and pace doesn't support Bottas's odds of reversing the trend of being soundly out-qualified and out-scored by the Brit.
According to Wolff:
"Valtteri knows exactly where he needs to be next year. He needs a start where is right up there with Lewis and all the other drivers for the championship, that is what he needs.Beating a five-time world champion at the peak of his activity, peak of his performance, is going to be very difficult and he knows that. But I think that he has it in him.”
It is also a tell-tale sign that Wolff's comments are in the public domain when the exchanges could have been in private just as he had a kitchen table talk with Hamilton after he lost the title in 2016 to Rosberg.
It also confirms the belief of Formula 1 fans that the former Williams driver is a very solid mid-field driver who can raise his game on any given Sunday but will fall short of a sustained championship campaign.
Wolff's 'wingman' comment and the team orders in Russia have also undoubtedly dealt a psychological wound on him.
The killer instinct is missing. The same hunger that served Daniel Ricciardo so well in stealing the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix from Bottas.
One can feel for the driver in such a scenario, but he can draw more fans and support towards himself only by excelling and out-driving the competition, most notably his teammate. Things can turn around, luck can smile again.
But if he doesn't start strongly, the pressure is only going to intensify. And if by any chance Mercedes haven't got the quickest car from the get-go in Australia, the equation becomes even more challenging. All things considered, is he a dead man walking? Quite possibly.