Valtteri Bottas got off to a shaky start to the Qatar Grand Prix, tumbling from fifth to eleventh place before struggling to make his way forward. Halfway through the race he was third behind Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, partly because he was the only one who had not yet made a pit stop. However, things went awry for Bottas on lap 33 when his left front tire punctured. He managed to drive back to the pits, but again ended up outside the top ten due to the incident.
Andrew Shovlin, Mercedes’ trackside engineering director, explains why Bottas was still on his first set of tyres: “Well, we were looking to get ahead of Fernando Alonso. He was on a relatively fresh set of hard tires on the road. But Valtteri was faster and finding a few tenths a lap. If we could have stayed out for three or four more laps, our lead over Alonso would have been so great that we could have had Valtteri come to the pits for new hard tires and have him return to the track ahead of Alonso. That was the plan.”
So a flat tire threw a spanner in the works. Shovlin: “The timing of that flat tire was very unfortunate. Valtteri felt it around the same time we saw it on the dates. It was too late for him to enter the pitlane, so he still had a full lap to do. And when you run out of pressure in one tire, you’re effectively driving around on three tires and you don’t have any grip in right-hand corners. That lap to the pits was extremely expensive. But not only did it cost us a lot of time, it also cost us performance. Because if you no longer have a wheel that holds the car up on one side, your front wing will drag on the ground, damaging it, as will your floor and a lot of other aerodynamic parts that are around that part of the car, because they make contact with the asphalt. So we lost quite a bit of performance because of that. Once back on the track, we were able to make an estimate based on the data.”
A few laps before the finish, Mercedes decided to take Bottas out of the race. “In the laps after the pit stop we started to get an idea of exactly how much performance we had lost. In addition, we also started to get a picture of the situation in the race and it became clear to us that we couldn’t get Valtteri back in the points. The damage to the car was too great for him to fight anyone. For that reason we decided to take the car out of the race.”
‘Very solid race’
Bottas’ match therefore already had a poor start. Shovlin: “That was primarily because we were on the dirty side of the grid. That part of the track hadn’t been ridden all weekend, as there were no support classes either. Valtteri wasn’t the only one on that side of the track losing positions at the start. A smaller problem was that the tires were not quite up to temperature. That cost him a bit of grip when pulling away and because of that he also had a little less grip in the first corners. So we faced a bit of a challenge, because by the end of the first lap Valtteri had fallen back to P11. After that, however, he drove a good catch-up race. According to our simulations, he would finish third or fourth. It was a very solid performance until we unfortunately got that flat tire.”