Bottas to Alfa Romeo: The last time an F1 driver plummeted down the grid

7th September 2021, 7:19am
6 min read
Bottas to Alfa Romeo: The last time an F1 driver plummeted down the grid
Image credit: Mercedes AMG F1
  • Valtteri Bottas to leave champions Mercedes for Alfa Romeo in 2022
  • Finnish driver faces prospect of big drop down the order
  • George Russell expected to take Bottas’ place at Mercedes

Valtteri Bottas will make the big step down the F1 grid to the Alfa Romeo team for the 2022 season, after confirming on Monday that he’ll leave the all-conquering Mercedes team after a five year stay alongside Lewis Hamilton. 

The move paves the way for rising British star George Russell to join Hamilton at the seven-time world champion squad, in one of the worst kept secrets in the F1 paddock. 

While for Russell the development is a career defining moment, Bottas faces the prospect of dropping from the reigning champions to the team that will likely finish ninth (second last) in this year’s standings. 

It’s a big drop down the order, especially when Bottas is used to challenging for podiums on a bad weekend, and wins on a good one. To put it into perspective, the Finnish driver has stood on the podium seven times in the 13 races so far in 2021. The last time the team badged as Alfa Romeo finished inside the top-three was in 2012, when it was still known as Sauber. 

An even more stark warning for Bottas is that his new team has scored just three points all season, while Mercedes heads the standings on 344.5.

Very rarely does a driver have to drop so far down the grid after ending a stint at the reigning champions, in fact, the last time a driver left the dominant team to extend his career towards the back of the grid was in 1997.

Then, Damon Hill joined the Arrows team after four years at Williams, which saw him finish in second place twice in the World Championship before finally claiming the crown in memorable fashion in 1996. 

But Williams decided mid-way through his championship season that it wanted to sign German Heinz-Harald Frentzen, partnering him alongside Jacques Villenueve who had made quite an impression as Hill’s teammate in 1996. 

Hill was left out in the cold, and in similar fashion to Bottas, was left with limited options to continue his career; Arrows represented the best choice, having finished ninth in 1996. Talk about similarities to Bottas’ current plight. 

For Hill, 1997 ended up being a complete disaster. The team was going through a major upheaval with new management, a new engine, new tyre supplier and very little carryover from the previous season.

It meant the car was unreliable and uncompetitive; Hill barely scraped onto the grid at the first race of the 1997 season, and then retired on the formation lap. While things improved and he was able to challenge the top-10 shortly afterwards, he only claimed his first point at the British Grand Prix halfway through the season. 

Then came one of his most legendary drives, taking advantage of the combination of durable Bridgestone tyres and a nimble car on a circuit that didn’t require top-end power, as he almost won the Hungarian Grand Prix, eventually finishing second after a late reliability problem. 

Barring a stunning qualifying performance at the season ending European Grand Prix, that was as good as it got for Hill, who ended the season with just seven points, and moved on to the Jordan team for the 1998. 

But this was an era when only the top-six drivers scored points, and Hill actually finished inside the top-10 six times that season. With the present-day points-scoring system, he would have claimed 42 points, and teammate Pedro Diniz 21! Admittedly car reliability back then was much less impressive, but it still gives an impression of the challenge facing Bottas in the coming seasons. 

The Finnish driver, with nine wins to his name so far in F1, will hope that the reset in the championship’s regulations next year will give Alfa Romeo the chance to jump up the order. But even if they do, it’s unlikely to be enough to put the team in podium contention, meaning Bottas will likely have to settle for regular points finishes at best. 

He will, though, see it as an opportunity to build a team around him. Bottas has regularly proven to be a match for Hamilton in qualifying, and with a long-term deal, he now has the chance to stamp his authority over a team for the first time in his career.

“I’m excited to join Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN for 2022 and beyond for what is going to be a new challenge with an iconic manufacturer,” he commented. 

“Alfa Romeo is a brand that needs no introduction, they have written some great pages of Formula One history and it’s going to be an honour to represent this marque. The potential of the setup in Hinwil is clear and I am relishing the opportunity to help lead the team forward up the grid, especially with the new regulations in 2022 giving the team a chance to make a leap in performance. 

“I’m grateful for the trust the team has put in me and I cannot wait to repay their faith: I’m as hungry as ever to race for results and, when the time comes, for wins. I know (team principal) Fred [Vasseur] well and I am looking forward to getting to know the rest of the team I am going to work with, building relationships as strong as the ones I have at Mercedes. 

“I am proud of what I have achieved in Brackley and I am fully focused on finishing the job as we fight for another world championship, but I am also looking forward to the new challenges that await me next year.”

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Written by Richard Randle

Richard Randle is a motorsport PR professional working with the UK’s top racing circuits and the UK’s premier single-seater category, the BRDC British F3 Championship.