THRIV­ING IN THE LIONS’ DEN

The Finn speaks can­didly about han­dling the pres­sure and be­com­ing a gen­uine ti­tle con­tender

Car (South Africa) - - SPEED - BY: Mau­rice Hamil­ton Mau­rice­hamil­ton

As Grand Prix drives go, it was the equiv­a­lent of a poi­soned chal­ice. Be­ing cho­sen as re­place­ment for Nico Ros­berg at Mercedes meant two things to Valt­teri Bot­tas: he would nally have a car ca­pa­ble of win­ning; but, in or­der to do that, he would be ex­pected to per­form straight­away and, in the process, beat Lewis Hamil­ton.

It was a job de­scrip­tion so de­mand­ing that Ros­berg, emo­tion­ally wrung out after win­ning the 2016 cham­pi­onship, re­tired with­out warn­ing largely be­cause he did not fancy another sea­son ght­ing against Hamil­ton.

And now Bot­tas was be­ing asked to step into the lions’ den.

For all his un­doubted ded­i­ca­tion and quiet con dence, it seemed fair to ask if Bot­tas would be­come another Heikki Ko­valainen; a fel­low Finn who had failed to step up to the plate when given a sim­i­lar chance by Mclaren as Hamil­ton’s team-mate in 2008 and 2009. On the other hand, he could be­come a Mika Häkki­nen, who qui­etly went on to win two world cham­pi­onships cour­tesy of Mclaren’s more ac­cu­rate op­por­tunism.

Bot­tas’ po­ten­tial re­mained un­known. Four years with Wil­liams had brought sev­eral podi­ums but precious lit­tle else. Com­pared with the in­con­sis­tent Felipe Massa in the other Wil­liams-mercedes, it was dif cult to tell whether the ab­sence of ex­pected re­sults was due to the driver, or his car.

The one thing we knew for sure was that Bot­tas, with an al­most com­plete lack of out­ward emo­tion, would not make waves. It was equally cer­tain that he would stay ice cold when faced with the po­lit­i­cal and men­tal heat gen­er­ated by be­ing pitched against a bril­liantly quick three-time world cham­pion renowned for his moods and ma­noeu­vres. Bot­tas’ com­peti­tors in the ju­nior cat­e­gories spoke of a quick and calm ri­val who rarely seemed us­tered. But Bot­tas was very aware that rac­ing for the reign­ing world cham­pi­ons would crank up the pres­sure like never be­fore.

“Ob­vi­ously, it was a big chal­lenge,” re­calls Bot­tas. “I was jump­ing in the shoes of a world cham­pion. I knew the team would ex­pect a lot from me, but I ex­pected a lot from my­self. I was con dent that with a good car – and there was no rea­son to ex­pect any­thing else – things wouldn’t change that much. The name of the game was go­ing to be the same, which meant ex­tract­ing ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing out of the car. That’s the way it was with Wil­liams. And now it would be the same with Mercedes.” “I did ac­cept that I would be more in the spot­light and peo­ple were go­ing to talk about me more be­cause they would be ex­am­in­ing ev­ery sin­gle thing I’m do­ing. But I know I can’t let any of that out­side pres­sure af­fect me. I never had any is­sues with those things be­fore and I wasn’t ex­pect­ing that to change. What has al­ways worked for me has been to be well pre­pared for ev­ery­thing re­lated to my per­for­mance – from my re­la­tion­ship with the team to my tness – so that, when I get in the car, I know I’ve done ev­ery sin­gle bit as well as I can.”

On pa­per, Bot­tas ap­peared to be the de facto num­ber two at Mercedes, even though the team pol­icy has al­ways been to al­low driv­ers to race each other. When Hamil­ton had the bet­ter re­sults in the rst three races and Bot­tas was asked to let his team leader through be­cause of a bet­ter strat­egy in Bahrain (where Bot­tas had won his rst pole), it seemed he was there just to sup­port Hamil­ton.

Then came Rus­sia, and a maiden win for Bot­tas, scored bril­liantly thanks to a su­perbly ag­gres­sive rst lap, and with­stand­ing re­lent­less pres­sure from the Fer­rari of Se­bas­tian Vet­tel in the clos­ing stages. This was proof of Bot­tas’ men­tal strength, par­tic­u­larly as it was one race after mak­ing a silly mis­take while fol­low­ing the safety car in China. Another er­ror in Rus­sia and he would have ef­fec­tively been writ­ten off by the ruth­less world of F1. Bot­tas not only passed this test with ying colours, but he had also thrown his hat into the cham­pi­onship ring.

“I’m here to per­form and ght for the vic­tory in ev­ery sin­gle race. That is my job,” re­it­er­ates Bot­tas. “F1 al­ways has a lot of crit­ics if you don’t get the re­sults. That rst win made that side of things a lit­tle bit bet­ter. I knew the win was go­ing to come and I was glad when it hap­pened be­cause it took the heat out of the sit­u­a­tion. I was also glad it came in the rst quar­ter of the sea­son rather than later on, be­cause the sea­son goes by quickly and mem­o­ries are short in F1.

“My life didn’t change after the win. I en­joy do­ing this and I love ev­ery sin­gle day. But it’s a fact that it gives a nice con dence boost and I could build on that. It was 81 races to my rst win – and I ad­mit that’s quite a time in F1 – so it’s a mile­stone when you re­mem­ber how much you have been work­ing to­wards this re­sult, not just in F1, but be­fore that.”

Con­scious of that very fact and the im­por­tance of team­work, Bot­tas has worked re­lent­lessly with his en­gi­neers, his mind soak­ing up in­for­ma­tion like a sponge. “There is so much to learn,” says Bot­tas. “At the sec­ond race [China], for in­stance, I knew I was not on the level where the car was; I couldn’t ex­tract ev­ery­thing out of it. But, since then, I’ve been get­ting more and more out of the car, feel­ing more com­fort­able with it and with the team. It’s all about small things at this level in F1. Once you get to nd the small de­tails, things get bet­ter and you nd some pace. That pace be­gan to come be­fore Spain [round ve] and I’ve been nd­ing plenty of points where I can do bet­ter, even after each of the rst two wins.”

A sec­ond vic­tory in Azer­bai­jan reaf rmed his cre­den­tials as a ti­tle con­tender while, at the same time, giv­ing Mercedes a po­ten­tial tac­ti­cal headache as the cham­pi­onship heads to­wards its cli­max at the end of Novem­ber. That’s a de­tail Bot­tas is con­tent to let oth­ers worry about as he fo­cuses on each race as it comes.

“I don’t want to talk about this too much,” says Bot­tas in his soft, slightly mono­tone ac­cent. “It’s still early days in the cham­pi­onship with lots to go and a mas­sive amount of points to get. I am de­vel­op­ing so much ev­ery sin­gle race with the car and with this team. For sure, we will be in the cham­pi­onship ght, but it doesn't help any­thing to start think­ing about it, be­cause the fact is, to win the ti­tle, you need to make the most out of ev­ery race week­end. You need to go race by race; ses­sion by ses­sion; lap by lap. But, I know in the­ory, with the points and ev­ery­thing, we will be in the ght. And that feels very good.”

81 RACES TO MY FIRST WIN

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