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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