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
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 modier 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 outqualied Alonso towards the end of 2013 – and several were the days when Felipe outdrove Michael.
So that’s the level. Massa is very reexy 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 denition 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 dened 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 difculty; 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 denitely 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 denitely be racing in F1 one year later. That was what made the difference – and that sort of security is rare in F1.
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 aireld, 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.