THRIVING IN THE LIONS’ DEN
The Finn speaks candidly about handling the pressure and becoming a genuine title contender
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