Valtteri Bottas was used as a ‘pawn’ by Mercedes to aid Lewis Hamilton during Sunday’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, according to one-time F1 world champion Jenson Button. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen started the race on pole position and was the favourite to win after his team’s successes in pre-season testing and free practice, but Hamilton produced an excellent performance to edge out the Dutchman by less than a second and take the spoils after a thrilling battle.
A race-long tactical duel between the Silver Arrows and Red Bull ended with the German outfit on top despite Verstappen passing Hamilton for the lead with just four laps to go.
The 23-year-old was on fresher tyres than his British counterpart and managed to nip ahead during the closing stages of the Grand Prix, but was promptly forced to give up the position after exceeding track limits in order to make his move stick.
Meanwhile, Bottas was well adrift of the leading pair in third after a disappointing series of events ended any hopes the Finn had of sealing victory.
He looked set to challenge for top honours when Mercedes told him via team radio that he would race a long middle stint, a strategy with the potential to put him into contention for the win.
Despite his team’s reassurances, he pitted just two laps after Hamilton before his next stop was fatally held up by a problem with the front right wheel that delayed its removal.
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Button, who won his only Drivers’ Championship title with Brawn GP in 2009, claimed after the race that Bottas was once again forced to deal with an unfavourable strategy in order to benefit Hamilton.
However, he conceded that the Finn lacked pace and suggested that he would have struggled to match his team-mate even if Mercedes had stuck to their word and kept him on track for a longer second stint.
“I think his pace compared to Lewis was a little bit off,” Button told Sky Sports F1. “That always hurts when you see your team-mate pulling off into the distance.
“And he was also used as a little bit of a pawn during the race so Max would follow his lead during pit stops.
“It’s a little bit of a tricky one [for him] because you know he’s going to be on the back foot in terms of the pit stops. But also the pace wasn’t quite there.
“It’s not been an easy race for him and I don’t think it fills him full of confidence for race two. That was the first time he’s looked unhappy with the way things have gone for the team.”
Bottas did not hesitate in criticising Mercedes’ strategy after the race at the Bahrain International Circuit, claiming that he would have liked the Silver Arrows to allow him to attack Hamilton and Verstappen rather than playing it safe.
“Disappointing, for sure,” said Bottas when asked to sum up proceedings. “Good thing we got good points as a team.
“From my side, at least for me, it felt like strategy-wise we were on the defensive side, instead of attacking, which I’m quite surprised and not quite normal.
“[It was] not ideal and then I had quite a slow pit stop which, in the end, took away any opportunities. At times the pace was good, but yeah, disappointed.”
Bottas has struggled to lay a glove on Hamilton since replacing Nico Rosberg at Mercedes in 2017, finishing comfortably behind the seven-time champion on the drivers’ leaderboard in each of his four seasons with the German outfit.
It remains to be seen whether the 31-year-old can return to the top step of the podium at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix on April 18.