ALWAYS the number-one pick of the potentially available drivers, Valtteri Bottas – yet to win a grand prix, although that may now change – has been named by Mercedes-Benz as the replacement for recently retired Formula One world champion Nico Rosberg.
One of Bottas’ first comments as a Mercedes driver was a blunt statement that his target was to win the world championship in his first season with the new team.
“Being in this kind of team, you can’t target anything less,” declared Bottas at the official announcement. “It’s my only dream in Formula One, so I’m ready to do everything I can.”
"It's very exciting times for me," said Bottas, who by virtue of the machinery he will race this season becomes a potential championship contender. He is quick enough, and has the emotional imperturbability and stoicism not to fall for new teammate Lewis Hamilton’s mind games.
A little earlier the same day, Williams confirmed that Felipe Massa had been persuaded – easily we understand, seeing he didn’t want to leave in the first place – to tackle another season as the replacement for the Finnish driver.
With the likes of Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen handcuffed tightly to their respective teams, Bottas has long been the favourite to slide into the Silver Arrow seat after the shock retirement of Rosberg a few days after the title-clinching race of 2016.
In a four-year F1 career, Bottas, who score nine podiums in 77 starts with Williams, was also contractually tied to his team for 2017, but Mercedes was able to negotiate him away from Williams with a sweetener or two.
Bottas, 27, has signed a one-year deal with Mercedes, with an opportunity for an extension of needed.
He joins modern-era F1’s dominant team, which has won the last three drivers and constructors' titles and is again one of the fancies this year under comprehensive new technical regulations.
But Bottas’ short one-year contract with the Silver Arrows has quickly raised speculation that Mercedes has in mind a play for Vettel at the end of the coming season, when the occasionally disgruntled four-times champ is out of contract.
In an arrangement with a few initial complications, the Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff’s managerial relationship with Bottas has had to end due to a potential conflict of interest.
Wolff was present at the Silver Arrows headquarters for the announcement, commenting that "Nico's decision in December was a big surprise, and certainly a challenging situation for the team to handle. But weathering the storm makes you more resilient and we see this as another opportunity for the team to grow.
"Valtteri is a no-nonsense guy, down to earth, straightforward and very focused. Pretty Finnish, to be honest, and a great fit for us.”
One of the pre-requisites of luring Bottas from Williams was the British team’s insistence that it had to secure an experienced driver to partner rookie Lance Stroll in the Canadian’s maiden season.
The 35-year-old Massa this was handed a reprieve, having been forced out of Williams and into reluctant retirement.
A Williams statement read: “Williams Martini Racing is pleased to confirm that Felipe Massa has agreed to re-join Williams on a one-year deal, coming out of retirement to replace Valtteri Bottas who the team has released to join Mercedes for the 2017 season.”
One major question remains: will Massa have to return his farewell team gifts?
“Firstly, I am very happy to have an opportunity to return to Williams,” Massa was reported as saying. I always intended to race somewhere in 2017, but Williams is a team close to my heart and I have respect for everything it is trying to achieve.
“Valtteri has a great opportunity, given the turn of events over the winter, and I wish him all the best at Mercedes.
“In turn, when I was offered the chance to help Williams with their 2017 Formula One campaign, it felt like the right thing to do. I certainly have not lost any of my enthusiasm for racing and I’m extremely motivated to be coming back to drive the FW40.
“The support from my fans over the last few weeks has been a huge boost and I'm grateful for that. I also look forward to working with Lance; I’ve known him for many years and seen his talent develop during that time, so I look forward to seeing what we can achieve together.”
In other news which helps tidy up the 2017 grid, the former Manor F1 driver and Mercedes development driver Pascal Wehrlein will drive for Sauber this season, alongside Swede Marcus Ericsson. Wehrlein had been tipped as a possible replacement for Rosberg but was judged too inexperienced by the world champion team.
Wehrlein’s Sauber deal puts Felipe Nasr on the sidelines.
Manor slipped into administration earlier this month, with its participation in March’s season opener, the Australian Grand Prix, in serious doubt.