BOTTAS AT HOME
Valtteri Bottas entered the summer break with much on his mind. F1 Racing caught up with him at home in Finland to discuss failure, redemption and the future
With Valtteri in his home town in Finland to talk about 2018 so far
“Here, take a rock,” says Valtteri Bottas, inviting F1 Racing to perch on a boulder at the edge of this tranquil Finnish lake. We’ve travelled a long way north to track down the Mercedes man, who is recuperating from the sturm und drang of the first half of the season, at his idyllic summer hideaway.
With the lake shimmering in the foreground, the backdrop is a forest of pine and spruce trees – a calming vista that’s a world away from the city lights, bustling airport terminal corridors and the intense spotlight of a Formula 1 weekend. This is where Valtteri comes to relax; it’s his childhood home.
We’ve here on the third and final free weekend of F1’s summer break, a much-needed respite for teams and drivers after the intensity of five grands prix in six weeks. By the time you read this, the long-haul races will be looming and the pressure of the world championship run-in starting to spike. It’s been a difficult few months for Bottas, who has demonstrated his quality through a number of outstanding performances – enough for Mercedes to reward him with a new contract. Yet he has also had to cope with distressing lows, such as the loss of certain victory in Azerbaijan, coupled with the prospect of having to set aside his championship ambitions for the good of the team.
Bottas slipped back home on the Sunday evening of the Hungarian GP, a race that had proved particularly fraught and one that he says was “a tough way to end the first half of the season”. There, lest we forget, he slid out of contention late on, owing to a sub-optimal strategy, and picked up a penalty and two points on his superlicence after on-track clashes with Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo. He was later referred to by team principal Toto Wolff as a “sensational wingman” [to Lewis Hamilton] – which could have been interpreted as a backhanded compliment, even if it wasn’t intended as such. All rather irksome for a driver who could, by now, have been in a much better position in the championship had luck taken a few different turns this season.
So, where better to decompress and reconnect with what made him want to be a racing driver in the first place? Ninety minutes north of Helsinki, on the shores of lake Isokukkanen, is the town of Nastola where Bottas grew up. His old schools, friends and family are all close by. So too is the kart circuit that kick-started his interest in racing.
“I used to practice there a lot,” says Bottas, sipping a cup of milky coffee. “And I mean a lot. No matter if it was raining heavily or there was a little bit of ice or snow, I was there. I realised from a young age that I was very interested in how I could improve my lap time and what things could affect it. My dad used to time me – not just laps, but through sectors and corners, too – and so I would try different techniques, different lines and change my driving style. I was only six years old, but I found it really fascinating.
“All the time I was thinking: how could I be better? Where could I be quicker? What could I do differently? It was the same when we went to a new track. We’d try an alternative setup or different lines, all with the aim of going faster.”
It’s the same determination to learn and improve that has helped Bottas, who will turn 29 just after the Belgian GP, in his second season with Mercedes. But modern F1 is unlike karting in that on-track testing opportunities are limited; selfimprovement cannot, therefore, come from practice alone.
“In F1 I do think that at some point it comes down to quality rather than quantity,” says Bottas. “By quality I mean how much you actually focus on driving and how much you think about it. As a kid, for sure, it’s good to drive around a lot. You get a good feeling for the car and you learn car control, but it’s a million times more effective if you then think about it, too. If I’ve gone for a run or I’m cross-country skiing I might think: ‘So that corner, why didn’t I drive it that way?’
IN F1, I DO THINK THAT IT COMES DOWN TO QUALITY RATHER THAN QUANTITY. BY QUALITY I MEAN HOW MUCH YOU FOCUS ON DRIVING AND HOW MUCH YOU THINK ABOUT IT
Or: ‘Why did I choose that kind of setup? Maybe next time I should try something else.’ It’s the mentality of the approach rather than driving around just not thinking about anything.
“When you have time off from racing you can develop, and I think it’s the same in any sport. Once you’ve been through so many millions of gigabytes of data with the engineers, you need to take the time to clear your mind; everything opens up and your body and your mind learn. All the time I’m thinking, like I did as a kid, about how to improve.”
Towards the end of his first year with Mercedes, Bottas told F1R that he intended to spend the winter working on raising his game for the coming season. He’d mentioned a few races where he’d been weak, notably Spa and Suzuka, and noted that he had to sharpen his qualifying performances – an area in which team-mate Hamilton is particularly strong. It didn’t help that last year it took him a while to get comfortable, using three different seats in the cockpit of the W08.
Australia aside (when he crashed in qualifying and hit the wall at Turn 2), it looked as if Bottas’s homework had paid off in the early part of 2018. He outqualified Hamilton in both Bahrain and China and brilliantly beat Vettel during a pitstop phase, which should have netted him the win in Shanghai until an untimely Safety Car ruined his race.
Then came Baku.
Three laps from the end of the race Bottas was all set for victory when a right-rear puncture, caused by running over debris, gifted the win to Hamilton. The stoic Bottas was palpably distraught afterwards, to the extent that Hamilton toned down his usual post-race exuberance, taking a moment to console his team-mate before heading to the podium.
“After the race we went through all the on-board video footage, to see if we could see the debris I ran over,” says Bottas. “That was the only thing I was worrying about – how didn’t I see it? I was thinking: ‘Shit, was it my fault?’ But even when we looked closely, we couldn’t see anything. I knew then there was nothing I could have done to have avoided it, but it really hurt. With Bahrain and China, where I came quite close to winning and then leading with three laps until the end, it was very painful. I stayed in Baku that night and I remember when I got back to the hotel room I just collapsed on my knees and I was crying like a baby. I’d never done that before. It proves that even Finns have emotions.”
Bottas could easily have been leading the championship after the first few races, but luck can play a cruel hand when you least expect it. After being taken out at the first corner by Sebastian Vettel at Paul Ricard, Bottas arrived in Austria determined to make amends for his run of ill fortune. He qualified on pole and led every lap until a hydraulic failure forced his retirement.
“It’s been a pretty weird season with so many different things happening,” he muses ruefully, while finishing his coffee. “I don’t think there’s a single time where I have been lucky. Most of the time I’ve been unlucky, and so you start to question yourself. Should I change my approach? Is there something I did wrong? Because many people say there’s no such thing as luck – you make your own luck. But this year, I’m not sure. It’s been weird, but I’m fine with it. It’s the situation we are in, I can’t change anything from the past and I just have to focus ahead. The future is the only thing I can change; not the past.”
The strategy calls and reliability issues (Hamilton suffered the same hydraulic issue in qualifying at the German GP) could be explained by the pressure Mercedes are facing in 2018. For the first time in the hybrid era, their dominance is under threat from a resurgent Ferrari. While Vettel was
IN BAKU, I REMEMBER WHEN I GOT BACK TO THE HOTEL ROOM I JUST COLLAPSED ON MY KNEES AND I WAS CRYING LIKE A BABY. I’D NEVER DONE THAT BEFORE
strong last year, it appears Maranello have made significant steps in every aspect of car performance, so the fight for the championship is much tighter this season.
“There is pressure but, honestly, I think it’s pressure in a good way,” says Bottas. “I don’t think the faults we’ve had are because of that pressure. It’s normal that you are always pushing the limits and now the competition is tougher; every team is pushing to the limits with everything, every single part on the car – it’s more on a knife edge. Of course reliability is key and the issues we’ve had have been really unfortunate and unpredictable. Those things didn’t happen last year but the cars are getting quicker all the time, the loads are getting higher and the parts are getting more stressed. I think Mercedes have reacted well to the issues we’ve had; there has been a quick fix and we’ve moved on.”
During his brief summer break, one thing Bottas hasn’t had to worry about is where he’ll be driving next year – an anxiety facing a few current Formula 1 racers while the driver merrygo-round has been in full swing this summer. At the German Grand Prix, Mercedes confirmed Hamilton for a new two-year deal (taking him up to the end of 2020) and also extended Bottas’s contract for 2019 with an option for 2020. Mercedes boss Wolff reiterated his desire to continue with a pairing that offers harmony, following those fractious years when Hamilton was partnered with Nico Rosberg.
“The relationship really helps,” notes Bottas. “Everyone knows Lewis and I can work together and be open going into next year. I am competition for Lewis, it’s not like I’m a…” Wingman?
“We are both wingmen,” he says, laughing, his mind no longer troubled by the comments Wolff made post-hungary. “Like in Top Gun! When the competition is tough it’s important to have that team spirit because when you have two drivers who are willing to share everything, it’s better than trying to hide something.”
But the fact that his Mercedes tenure beyond 2019 remains an option, the contractual equivalent of merely being pencilled in, means that Bottas cannot afford to let up his speed or commitment.
“Yeah, sure. At the beginning of next year, it’s going to be a similar thing where I need to prove myself,” he begins, before changing tack. “Well – it’s started already. If I have a strong end of the season that helps as well.
“I’m fine with it because my intention is always to keep improving. And if the team see that, then I know there is no worry. I want to be closer and closer to Lewis all the time and eventually ahead of him. That is my goal. If I keep to my targets then my future will be good.”
WE ARE BOTH WINGMEN. LIKE IN WHEN THE COMPETITION IS TOUGH IT’S IMPORTANT TO HAVE TEAM SPIRIT… IT’S BETTER THAN TRYING TO HIDE SOMETHING
Bottas has suffered bad luck all year, from the Safety Car in China (top), the puncture in Baku (middle) to hydraulic failure in Austria (bottom)
Top Guns: Bottas and Hamilton have proved an amicable pairing so far, with Bottas giving his esteemed team-mate a run for his money