V for Valt­teri’s ve­loc­ity

The Fin­nish driver flies fast and flies un­der the radar. Meet the man For­mula One's top team is bank­ing on.

Esquire (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS - Words by Noor Amylia Hilda Pho­to­graphs by Chuan Looi Styling by Ian Loh Art di­rec­tion by Re­becca Chew

Af­ter a morn­ing spi­ralling in and out of spon­sor com­mit­ments, he ar­rives on set at the Esquire cover shoot look­ing the model of com­po­sure. Valt­teri Bot­tas greets ev­ery­one in the suite of the Man­darin Ori­en­tal with a hand­shake and a gaze so fo­cused that it is a crys­talline win­dow into his be­ing. You must imag­ine what goes on in a mind so still. The 28-year-old Finn cuts a dash as he slips on de­signer threads from BOSS and pa­tiently poses for pho­to­graphs. He gives a short self-dep­re­cat­ing laugh when the crew show him the shots. A mod­est kind of hu­mour is not what you’d ex­pect of a For­mula One driver, but be­neath the dif­fi­dent ex­te­rior, you glimpse in those eyes a pu­rity of in­tent that can­not be de­nied.

You could say he needs it, but equally, it’s also what has landed him a drive with Mercedes AMG Petronas For­mula One, the dom­i­nant team on the grid to­day that most re­cently added a hat-trick of Con­struc­tors’ and Driv­ers’ World Cham­pi­onships to an ex­pand­ing tro­phy cab­i­net.

Just who is Valt­teri Bot­tas? Un­til you speak with him, his story would be un­re­mark­able. It fol­lows a fa­mil­iar nar­ra­tive arc: kart­ing young (from age 6), mak­ing his way through the Fia-sanc­tioned for­mula se­ries of races at home and in Eu­rope, hope­fully catch­ing the eye of the faster, bet­ter, tal­ent-spot­ting team prin­ci­pals. Here’s the CV:

Com­peted for seven years in Fin­land’s Na­tional Kart­ing Squad and grad­u­ated to sin­gle-seater rac­ing in 2007. Won both the 2008 For­mula Re­nault Eurocup and the 2008 For­mula Re­nault North Euro­pean Cup, win­ning 17 races out of 28 starts. Joined the For­mula 3 Euroseries in 2009, (a favourite of pre­vi­ous fu­ture For­mula One stars), won two Masters of For­mula 3 ti­tles. Joined the GP3 se­ries in 2010, clinched the cham­pi­onship ti­tle on his first at­tempt, dur­ing the penul­ti­mate race of the sea­son. Tal­ent-spot­ted by Sir Frank Wil­liams, vet­eran F1 team prin­ci­pal. Signed as a test driver for the Wil­liams For­mula One team and as a re­serve driver in 2012. Raced full-time for the 2013 sea­son along­side a highly ex­pe­ri­enced team­mate, Pas­tor Mal­don­ado.

He stayed at Wil­liams for three years where he scored nine podi­ums. Wil­liams not be­ing the team it once was, Bot­tas dis­tin­guished him­self by do­ing so. He would start 77 races for one of F1’s stal­wart teams, but his maiden vic­tory proved elu­sive. When a va­cancy ap­peared at Mercedes af­ter Nico Ros­berg un­ex­pect­edly an­nounced his re­tire­ment days af­ter clinch­ing the driver’s ti­tle, Bot­tas called up his for­mer men­tor and Mercedes AMG Petronas For­mula One boss Toto Wolff to of­fer his ser­vices for the job.

“Valt­teri is a no-non­sense guy, down to earth, straight­for­ward and very fo­cused,” said Wolff in a state­ment shortly af­ter sign­ing Bot­tas to the team. Wolff would know his kind of re­silience, mak­ing him the per­fect can­di­date to take over the de­fend­ing World Cham­pion’s seat. Pres­sure? Bot­tas ex­plains it like this to Esquire:

“Ob­vi­ously, they were very big boots to fill but I have to say, at no point did I feel like I was un­der pres­sure. It would have been a po­si­tion to take in a lot of pres­sure if I gath­ered all the ex­pec­ta­tions from the team and ev­ery­one else who had ex­pec­ta­tions on me but I never had that feel­ing be­cause of the sup­port I got from the team when I first joined.

“I re­alised it on the very first day, I thought to my­self, ‘Okay, we are in this to­gether.’ They’re do­ing ev­ery­thing they can to help me and it’s a mas­sive team; it’s not just me. So, think­ing about it like that has been help­ing me a lot.”

More in­ter­est­ing is Bot­tas’ os­ten­si­bly or­di­nary prove­nance. Hail­ing from the town of Nas­tola (pop­u­la­tion: 15,000) in south­ern Fin­land, he de­scribes his fam­ily as be­ing mid­dle-class. Sta­tis­tics will show that Fin­land pro­duces the high­est num­ber of world mo­tor rac­ing cham­pi­ons per capita than in any other coun­try. It’s com­pet­i­tive in a small coun­try with wide-open spa­ces cov­ered for months in snow, where skil­ful driv­ing is part of daily life. And, like Bot­tas did, it’s not un­com­mon for Finns to take up kart­ing as kids.

Still, some take to it more read­ily than oth­ers. “The first time I got in a kart, I just fell in love with it—the speed and the sound—i was really ex­cited about it,” he says, eyes light­ing up. Bot­tas’ par­ents sep­a­rated when he was 10, but re­mained united in fu­elling his need for speed.

“Of course my par­ents ques­tioned me if it was what I really wanted to do,” he says. “Ob­vi­ously it was very time-con­sum­ing and fi­nan­cially, it’s (rac­ing) not easy as a hobby or as a sport, but it was a step-by-step process.”

They bought him a used go-kart and he re­calls when they would spend idyl­lic week­ends with trav­el­ling around Fin­land and Eu­rope. “I loved it then. Some­times we would go in the camp­ing trailer and we would go on a rac­ing week­end. It was very re­laxed but then the older you get, the more com­pet­i­tive and in­tense it gets. I think my par­ents could see that I was really en­joy­ing ev­ery mo­ment of it and that’s why they gave me all the sup­port they could.”

His fa­ther ran a clean­ing ser­vice com­pany and took the op­por­tu­nity to men­tion to clients, and their clients, that his son was a bud­ding racer. They sup­ported Bot­tas by sup­ply­ing tyres and parts and even­tu­ally fi­nanced him when it be­came clear he was in it, just be­cause.

Bot­tas points proudly to the firm’s logo on the sleeve of his rac­ing over­alls: a lo­cal com­pany, Wi­huri, is still a spon­sor af­ter al­most two decades. “I think maybe I was about nine years old when they first helped me and now they’re still with me. With­out all those lo­cal com­pa­nies help­ing me,

there would have been no chance.”

Like all kids, he had his rac­ing heroes. But no­body taught him how to drive. Nor is his ve­loc­ity ge­netic: no one in the fam­ily has ever been a racer.

“It was just me and the stop­watch. I re­mem­ber so many times of it be­ing just me and my dad at the go-kart track where he’s tak­ing the lap times. I was try­ing dif­fer­ent things on how to go quicker from a very young age.”

He found god and the devil in all small things: “It was very in­ter­est­ing be­cause driv­ing is all about the lit­tle de­tails and there were so many things that af­fected how I could make the lap times bet­ter.”

The Finns have a word for this: sisu. It has no di­rect English trans­la­tion, but Fin­lan­dia Univer­sity de­scribes it as hav­ing a “mys­ti­cal, al­most mag­i­cal mean­ing” and roughly trans­lates to English as “strength of will, de­ter­mi­na­tion, per­se­ver­ance and act­ing ra­tio­nally in the face of ad­ver­sity.” It’s a unique con­cept for Euro­peans and oth­ers who are wed­ded to the en­light­en­ment tra­di­tion, be­cause it bears myt­i­cism, magic and ra­tio­nal­ity in the same breath.

Bot­tas’ story car­ries a whole lot of sisu with it, be­cause it is as if he asks, with his driv­ing, where is the limit? He looks for it, in his ma­chine, in him­self, in the man-ma­chine in­ter­face. Can rac­ing faster and faster take him where he wants to go? Where does he want to go?

Bot­tas: “It was all about the speed when I was a kid, of course. I was go­ing very quick then, but the prob­lem is that you get used to go­ing really fast and then you want more and more and more. Even now, when we are go­ing 350kph, we wish that we could go quicker and you get used to it. For me, the ex­cite­ment that I get dur­ing rac­ing and com­pet­ing against the other per­son and try­ing to be the best and all the fine de­tails that come with driv­ing is what I love most about it.”

In his de­but race for Mercedes at the Aus­tralian Grand Prix this year, he placed third, prompt­ing Mercedes chief and three-time For­mula One World Cham­pion, Niki Lauda to men­tion in an in­ter­view with Sky Sports F1 that Nico Ros­berg could not have done a bet­ter job. That’s a fact—bot­tas man­aged to qual­ify marginally closer to Hamil­ton at the Mel­bourne Al­bert Park cir­cuit than Ros­berg had done in the pre­vi­ous year.

But Ros­berg isn’t the only World Cham­pion Bot­tas has to mea­sure up against. That would, of course be Hamil­ton, who had a testy re­la­tion­ship with Ros­berg. Bot­tas is re­al­is­tic, pro­fes­sional and san­guine about his prospects:

“Well, I have to say, it’s not easy be­cause he’s really quick. He’s ob­vi­ously very ex­pe­ri­enced, he’s been with the team for a longer time and he’s got three World Cham­pi­onships. It’s not easy to try and be ahead of him, but some­times I man­age to do so. I think with this be­ing my first year with the team, they really ap­pre­ci­ate that. But as a guy to work with, he has been very good. He’s a nice guy; I didn’t know him that well when I joined but now I got to know him and I really re­spect him as a driver and as a per­son.”

“The chem­istry and dy­namic be­tween Valt­teri and Lewis work and are what we need to take the fight to our com­peti­tors,” tweeted Wolff on the team’s ac­count.

“Hon­estly, it has to be the team spirit,” adds Bot­tas. “If you have good chem­istry be­tween team­mates, you can push the team for­ward. It needs to be both ways and quick team­mates are al­ways good, be­cause it can pos­si­bly make you learn from him or to try even harder.”

In Bahrain this year, Bot­tas se­cured his first F1 pole po­si­tion, out­qual­i­fy­ing Hamil­ton by 0.02 sec­onds. Mercedes’ clos­est ri­val, the Fer­rari of Se­bas-

“HON­ESTLY, I CAN’T RE­MEM­BER THE LAST TIME I CRIED. SO MAYBE THERE’S SOME­THING WRONG WITH ME.”

tian Vet­tel, came in a dis­tant third, half-a-sec­ond be­hind the two Mercedes.

Then in Rus­sia, he achieved his first F1 win at the Sochi Au­to­drom. “It was amaz­ing! I could only dream of it when I was a kid. I re­mem­ber watch­ing races on TV and I’d watch the win­ner and I’d think to my­self, ‘Wow! He won the race!’ And then be­ing there your­self is a lit­tle bit sur­real. It took a few days to ac­knowl­edge it. It’s crazy, but it is what it is.” Bot­tas says.

The win­ner Bot­tas used to watch on TV was an­other fa­mous Finn, who took a longer time to score his first For­mula One grand prix win (six sea­sons to Bot­tas’ four)—mika Häkki­nen, one of Bot­tas’ heroes when he was grow­ing up. Häkki­nen went on to be­come a dou­ble World Cham­pion, so Bot­tas still has time.

His name may yet go up there among the Aal­to­nens, Vata­nens and Häkki­nens, et al, but he’s fo­cused on his own ve­loc­ity.

“You know how you use the ped­als, the throt­tles, the brakes, the gear… Then you think about what kind of lines you take, how is your mind set up, how fo­cused you are. Then it’s all about con­trol­ling the car, con­trol­ling the grip and try­ing to make the most out of the laws of physics—that’s how it goes.

“I could speak for many hours on how to drive quickly with dif­fer­ent things,” he says, plainly happy.

If he has per­sonal ex­pec­ta­tions, he’s not let­ting on. Or maybe, they just mean some­thing else for him.

“Hon­estly, I can’t re­mem­ber the last time I cried, so maybe there’s some­thing wrong with me.”

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