ICE IN THE VEINS

He’s the cool-headed hot­shot with a skill set that bears the hall­marks of a cham­pion. Peter Wind­sor dis­sects F1, Bot­tas-style

F1 Racing - - THE FEATURES - POR­TRAITS ADRIAN MY­ERS

I think Valt­teri Bot­tas is go­ing to be a ma­jor star; I’ll try to tell you why.

He has the tech­nique.

Watch him from the out­side of the Lesmo Curves at Monza; watch him into the pool sec­tion – and La Ras­casse – in Monaco. The move­ments are seam­less, al­most Trulli-like. The pre­ci­sion is ab­so­lute. And he is fast –a cru­cial modier in this case, be­cause there’s noth­ing eas­ier in F1 than be­ing smooth and slow.

Of course, the Gilles, Ron­nie and Lewis fans among us would say that he doesn’t have that nal, tyre-chat­ter­ing edge – that he doesn’t lean on the car even as Mika Häkki­nen leant on a McLaren, or Fer­nando pitches a Fer­rari. I think that’s true – but then Jackie Ste­wart, Alain Prost and Niki Lauda were not par­tic­u­larly vis­ual ei­ther. Valt­teri has al­ready found his har­mony. His driv­ing has depth. It there­fore has scope for ex­po­nen­tial growth.

I hear you also cite the early-sea­son pace of Felipe Massa – a driver largely trounced by Fer­nando Alonso at Fer­rari. If Valt­teri is that good, you ask, why hasn’t he in­stantly up­staged Felipe, par­tic­u­larly given Valt­teri’s fa­mil­iar­ity with Wil­liams? The an­swer here is that we’re see­ing in 2014 a re­ju­ve­nated Felipe – a Massa Fer­rari failed to bring out from the day they asked him to hand that Hock­en­heim win over to Fer­nando. Valt­teri is rac­ing, in other words, against a very fast team-mate. Massa out­qualied Alonso to­wards the end of 2013 – and sev­eral were the days when Felipe out­drove Michael.

So that’s the level. Massa is very reexy and very fast. His foot and hand in­puts are larger than Fer­nando’s, but no less quick; Valt­teri’s driv­ing is less re­ac­tionary and founded on more sub­tle in­puts. Over time – over a race dis­tance even – it should, in most cir­cum­stances, rise to the top.

I think Wil­liams are also in an un­usual con­di­tion this year – or this rst half of the year – be­cause of their choice of gear ra­tios. By run­ning sub­stan­tially shorter than the other Mercedes teams, the Wil­liams driv­ers by deni­tion are putting more load into the tyres mid-cor­ner (given the close­ness of the eight-speed gear­box and the lat­er­ally loaded up­changes they are obliged to make). This is par­tic­u­larly ob­vi­ous on long cor­ners of de­creas­ing ra­dius and in the wet. Some – like Jen­son But­ton – will ar­gue that ra­tio choices in 2014 make no dif­fer­ence at all be­cause the new power units de­velop so much torque. This is true, but it side­steps the is­sue of what ac­tu­ally hap­pens to the rear tyres dur­ing a seam­less up­shift. En­ergy is still dis­si­pated; it doesn’t dis­ap­pear. It just dis­si­pates faster.

To take this to the op­po­site ex­treme, con­sider the con­ver­sa­tion we can now re-hear be­tween Jackie Ste­wart and François Cev­ert af­ter rst prac­tice at Monaco in 1971, in the re­cently re-re­leased Weekend of a Cham­pion, di­rected by Ro­man Polan­ski. François is ask­ing Jackie about whether he should take a cor­ner – I think it’s Portier – in ei­ther sec­ond or third and Jackie’s re­sponse is in­stant: “Third”. He ba­si­cally says, ‘al­ways use a longer gear when in doubt’. It gives you a more sta­ble plat­form on which to bal­ance the car. You’re ask­ing less from the car with a longer gear; you can im­part more with the steer­ing and throt­tle.

My view is that the shorter gear­ing of the Wil­liams this year is not hurt­ing Felipe at all be­cause he’s al­ways been ‘that sort of driver’. He bal­ances the car on the edge of over­steer. He needs to feel the en­gine at the ab­so­lute point of peak power at any stage of the cor­ner.

I don’t think these ra­tios ac­tu­ally hurt Valt­teri, but they limit his abil­ity to ma­nip­u­late the car or to de­velop any sort of tyre-wear ad­van­tage over a race dis­tance. If we take one cor­ner in isolation – Turn 11 at Bahrain – you would have seen both Wil­liams driv­ers chang­ing from fourth to fth just af­ter the apex, thus in­escapably load­ing the rear tyres and oblig­ing both driv­ers to op­er­ate within a very dened path. Had they been obliged to hold a much longer third through­out that cor­ner, the door would have been open for a driver like Valt­teri to ma­nip­u­late a more grad­ual weight shift on ap­proach, then to con­trol the front end of the car with foot­work against steer­ing load.

With­out this scope, Valt­teri is hav­ing to drive like Felipe. And that is why you see Felipe ini­tially up­stag­ing him.

There’s an­other point here, too: the less a driver like Valt­teri is able to do with a car – the more line- and in­put-locked he is by the lim­its of the tech­ni­cal so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the car – the less adept he will be with the driv­ing com­po­nents that can make a dif­fer­ence. I say this not only in the con­text of rac­ing in gen­eral, but also to the back­ground of Valt­teri still be­ing a com­par­a­tive rookie. He is, in my view, one of those rare driv­ers who is able to deal with any­thing that may arise.

The downside to this de­gree of talent is nonethe­less not to rely on it be­cause even­tu­ally it will slow you down. If you use up a bit of car con­trol, it’s go­ing to activate what Rob Wil­son calls ‘the sur­vival in­stinct’. And prob­a­bly that’s go­ing to be on the same cor­ner on the next lap. Fer­nando Alonso and Mika Häkki­nen are/were good ex­am­ples of driv­ers who nicely bal­ance(d) their la­tent car con­trol against ma­nip­u­la­tion (when re­quired). It’s a task of as­ton­ish­ing com­plex­ity and difculty; once achieved, though, it is the key to great­ness – the key to those last few hun­dredths of a sec­ond un­der pres­sure and to the sort of race con­sis­tency

that can win cham­pi­onships. The im­por­tant thing for Valt­teri – par­tic­u­larly in the rst phase of the 2014 sea­son – is not to fall too far into the realms of car con­trol. Given all that’s go­ing on around him, this won’t be easy.

Valt­teri has phenom­e­nal feel for brake cadence (for the cor­rect mod­u­la­tion of the brake pedal) and for the rate at which brakepedal pres­sure can be re­duced. You’ve only got to spend a few laps watch­ing Felipe and Valt­teri brak­ing from high speed to see the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two: Felipe will usu­ally brake a me­tre or two later but on two laps out of ve will lock a front or bob­ble the rear. Valt­teri will ap­pear, for all the world, to be ‘more sta­ble’.

In re­al­ity, he’s feel­ing the brake mod­u­la­tion with great touch and then re­leas­ing the pres­sure ear­lier. A lot of techno-talk con­cerns brak­ing-by-wire this year and, in­deed, some driv­ers will look for an en­gi­neer­ing so­lu­tion to ev­ery mis­take they make. Ul­ti­mately, though, there is no magic: brakeby-wire or not, the great­est of driv­ers prob­a­bly nd ex­actly the right brake mod­u­la­tion about 50 per cent of the time, so wide are the vari­ables di­vid­ing ini­tial pres­sure, bumps on the road, tem­per­a­ture of the tyres, track sur­face, brake uid and disc tem­per­a­tures, etc. And from what I’ve seen of Valt­teri, I’d put him in that top bracket.

He also has, as I im­plied ear­lier, a Trulli/Reute­mann/Mansell-like feel for ini­tial steer­ing in­put and brake de­crease (rel­a­tive to fron­tend grip); and he looks pretty good, too, in the lin­ear power/load ap­pli­ca­tion depart­ment. All this shows up in the wet (short ra­tios notwith­stand­ing) but it is there in the dry, too, clearly ev­i­dent on the right sort of cor­ner.

His big­gest weak­ness right now – one he shares with Felipe – is his propen­sity some­times to use more road than is nec­es­sary – par­tic­u­larly on en­try. I think this is ex­ac­er­bated by the short ra­tios nat­u­rally invit­ing a driver to ‘lean’ on the out­side rear – al­though Felipe has al­ways driven this way. Oh yes. And his starts aren’t as good as Felipe’s – but then no one’s are. This is an art he can denitely learn from his team-mate.

BACK­GROUND AND AP­PROACH

Valt­teri’s back­ground is straight­for­ward and un­clut­tered: Rauno, his fa­ther, was a quick 800m run­ner, who also worked very hard at earn­ing a liv­ing (as an in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tor in the clean­ing in­dus­try). Valt­teri, too, is dex­ter­ous and ath­letic.

The pair of them saw a kart race in a lo­cal town. Valt­teri was rapt. His fa­ther spent all the time and money he could on a kart and then on a kart-rac­ing sea­son. Valt­teri was fast and suc­cess­ful at a very young age. He loved the speed ini­tially – and then he loved the com­pe­ti­tion. De­spite be­ing a Finn, and there­fore very much ex­posed to ral­ly­ing, Valt­teri al­ways wanted the one-on-one com­pe­ti­tion of rac­ing. His mother, who now lives in Spain, re­mem­bers Valt­teri at the ten­der age of ten, an­nounc­ing: “I want to be world cham­pion!”

“Valt­teri is one of those rare driv­ers who is able to deal with any­thing that may arise”

Ice hockey was an­other sport at which Valt­teri could have ex­celled, but it was mo­tor rac­ing that now fully ab­sorbed the Bot­tas fam­ily. The two labradors were duly named René and Rubens; and the Bot­tas cat to­day is called Turbo. Valt­teri pro­gressed to car rac­ing via the NEC For­mula Re­nault cham­pi­onship, cre­ated by Mick de Haas, the Dutch­man who brought the ini­tial Canon spon­sor­ship to Wil­liams in 1985.

You know the rest. In a Lewis Hamil­ton fairy­tale of a story, Valt­teri re­ceived a phone call one day from Mika Häkki­nen, who was by then in the man­age­ment busi­ness with Di­dier Co­ton and Toto Wolff. Pro­vid­ing Valt­teri de­liv­ered – and lis­tened – he would be on their radar. He was on his way.

The drives came – the bud­gets were there – as were the re­sults. The rst real test ar­rived mid­way through 2011, when Valt­teri should have been win­ning the GP3 cham­pi­onship with ART. Hurt by poor qual­i­fy­ing runs, he was, by mid-sea­son, only 11th. His ca­reer was on the line. He had a quick team-mate, too, in James Cal­ado. The pres­sure upon him was mas­sive.

Valt­teri dug deep and worked on the ba­sics – tyre pres­sures on a new set, warm-up pace, feel for the car at Turn 1, when the grip level is still an un­known. He won four straight races. He clinched the cham­pi­onship in the nal round.

This was his mak­ing, and 2012 was a lin­ear pro­gres­sion as a Wil­liams third driver with­out any rac­ing. Per­haps this lack of road dust still colours him a lit­tle to­day; equally, he was able to ma­ture men­tally in 2012, to think about his tech­nique away from the vor­tex of job lists, short runs and me­chan­i­cal dra­mas. On bal­ance, I think his 2012 sab­bat­i­cal was a good thing – but only be­cause he knew that, on 1 Jan­uary 2012, he would denitely be rac­ing in F1 one year later. That was what made the dif­fer­ence – and that sort of se­cu­rity is rare in F1.

THE FU­TURE

Toto Wolff was an early be­liever in Valt­teri and so you have to think that the two of them will be linked for many sea­sons to come. Valt­teri wouldn’t have had the Wil­liams drive but for the money Wolff in­vested in the team – and Wil­liams wouldn’t have the Mercedes en­gine in 2014 but for Toto. Should Lewis or Nico ever de­cide to leave the fac­tory team, as­sume Valt­teri will be the log­i­cal re­place­ment.

Valt­teri has the kind of very quiet, very calm ap­proach that can with­stand pres­sure. He’s happy to say noth­ing if the op­tion is merely to make con­ver­sa­tion; but there’s noth­ing vague about him, noth­ing bor­ing. When Wil­liams in­vited him to drive the his­toric 1992 FW14B at a se­cluded aireld, he not only turned up ahead of time but lmed the day him­self for pos­ter­ity: he loves his mo­tor rac­ing to the core. He is com­pletely un­in­ter­ested, I think, in any­thing re­motely con­cerned with ‘glam­our’ but he is both so­phis­ti­cated and me­thod­i­cal in the way he goes about his life.

We’re talk­ing po­ten­tial cham­pi­onships here… not just the win­ning of races.

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