The contrasting fortunes following the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix could not have been more different for Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

2018 heralded another championship triumph for Mercedes, with the German manufacturer continuing its perfect record of clinching every title on offer since the start of the V6 hybrid era in 2014, while Hamilton delivered arguably his best season in F1 to date to seal his fifth drivers’ crown.

On the other side of the Mercedes garage, Bottas left the Yas Marina paddock cutting a figure devoid of confidence and one both physically and mentally drained. Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff later revealed the Finn had told him he wanted to “disappear” over the winter following a frustrating and ultimately disappointing campaign.

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Reflecting on his second season with Mercedes - a winless year initially plagued by bad luck and later hampered by Hamilton’s charge to the title - Bottas claimed it had been his “worst season” in F1 so far. He ended 2018 with a low-key run of four consecutive fifth place finishes, capped off by a woeful final race that he finished 50 seconds adrift of race-winner Hamilton despite the duo sharing the front-row.

“Overall the race sums up the season quite well - [it] started off quite well and then everything turns to shit,” Bottas admitted directly after the race.

“I think there’s been quite a few good races, but things just haven’t gone my way. I would say that, in general, I’ve been unlucky this year, but there’s more than that.

“I know for a fact that I’ve performed better compared to last year. That’s the only thing that matters after a season like this.

“You just have to learn and try to forget, but this is definitely a season that will make me a tougher person and driver for the future.”

Where did it all go wrong?

Bottas’ season did not get off to the best of starts when he crashed during Australian Grand Prix qualifying, but he recovered to finish in the points before narrowly being beaten by Sebastian Vettel in Bahrain.

China was a race Bottas should have won. Starting third on the grid, Bottas turned in a strong drive and found himself in the lead of the race after jumping both Ferraris in the pitstops, only for a badly-timed Safety Car to ruin his chances.

A strategy gamble from Red Bull to pit under the Safety Car proved a masterstroke, as Daniel Ricciardo charged through the pack and passed Bottas en route to victory. Nevertheless, Bottas left Shanghai just 14 points behind early championship leader Vettel.

Bottas was again the quicker of the two Mercedes drivers for much of the weekend in Baku, and looked set to score the team’s first win of the season after a Safety Car period for a collision between the Red Bull duo changed the complexion of the race and, on this occasion, worked in his favour.

He led until two laps to go, when, in a cruel twist of fate, Bottas suffered a dramatic tyre failure and was forced to retire. Victory would have seen him leapfrog Vettel into the lead of the standings - instead he slipped to fourth, 30 points behind Hamilton, who inherited the win. Had his tyre not deflated after hitting a piece of debris along the main straight, things could have looked very different in the title race.

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix marked the beginning of the end of Bottas’ title hopes, who quickly faded out of championship contention and never really recovered from the blow.

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“He was really good until Baku,” Wolff noted. “I think he would have won the race there without the puncture and he would have been in the lead of the championship.

“After a long conservation, I believe that when you have no shot anymore of the championship, and you know you need to give up, it kind of damages you mentally.

“I hope it’s not the case, he says not, he’s a strong Finn and a warrior but now over the winter we have to pick him up again and get him back to a good place.”

After July’s British Grand Prix the momentum had well and truly shifted. Bottas’ strong start to the season was little more than a distant memory as Hamilton went on to win eight of the remaining 11 races, finishing the season with 11 victories and 11 pole positions. Bottas, meanwhile, recorded just four podiums in the same period, ultimately slipping to fifth in the standings, 161 points behind Hamilton.

By remaining winless for the entirety of 2018, Bottas claimed the unwanted statistic of becoming the first Mercedes driver since Michael Schumacher in 2012 to fail to claim a race victory. It marked a new low for Bottas, who looked a shadow of the driver that claimed three race wins and four poles in an impressive maiden season with the German manufacturer.

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The Ocon factor

The man next in line to the Mercedes throne is Esteban Ocon, who became an unfortunate victim of Force India’s off-track financial troubles, subsequent rescue from administration by a consortium led by Lawrence Stroll, and unpredictable driver market merry-go-round. The 22-year-old lost his Force India seat to Lance Stroll, and had a Renault deal snatched away after Daniel Ricciardo’s shock decision to leave Red Bull, having favoured the French marque over a McLaren offer for 2019.

The highly-rated Ocon enjoyed another solid campaign with Force India and has already been named Mercedes’ reserve driver for next season with a clear aim of returning to the grid in 2020. Despite his new role, the Frenchman insisted he has been given “no assurances” over a 2020 seat.

Wolff vented his frustration about Ocon’s plight in Singapore, but stressed Mercedes would not consider releasing the youngster, declaring: “One day he is going to be in a Mercedes and win races and championships, and show all the others out there that they made a mistake.”

Bottas will find himself under huge pressure next year, given the added caveat of having Ocon breathing down his neck. Bottas, whose contract only runs until the end of 2019 (though it does include an option for 2020), insisted he is not fazed by the speculation and is “100 per cent” certain there will be a seat available for him at Mercedes in 2020.

“It’s not a concern,” Bottas said in Abu Dhabi. “People are always talking and, for sure, every driver wants to move on with their own career, they want to grab the opportunities.

“But it’s not my job to worry about that, it’s only going to hurt me. I have a very good relationship with every team member here, including Toto, and we can always speak openly about anything, so there’s nothing being hidden.

“If I meet my targets and the targets the team has for me next year, that’s good,” he added

“If I don’t and if the team feels I’m not performing well enough, then it’s fair enough. It’s how the sport goes, so I’m not worried.”

Bottas contributed just 247 points to Mercedes’ overall tally and a fifth-place finish in the championship does not reflect the quality of the package at his disposal. Crucially though, it was enough to help beat Ferrari to a fifth successive constructors’ title over Ferrari.

Mercedes cannot afford to lose its up-and-coming star Ocon, and one can imagine another season like 2018 could spell the end of Bottas’ time at the German manufacturer, particularly with the added threats posed by Ferrari’s new recruit Charles Leclerc and a Honda-powered Red Bull driven by Max Verstappen, who was only outscored by Hamilton in the second half of the season.

Either way, Bottas has work to do over the winter and needs to bounce back strongly to avoid increasing doubts over his future once the 2019 F1 season kicks off.

With 102 days to go until lights out at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, the pressure is already mounting.

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