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

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS JAMES ROBERTS

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

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