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IMPRESSIVE BOTTAS STILL IMPROVING

Originally published in the April, 2015 issue of DRIVENWORLD

March 17, 2015

The 2014 F1 season came quickly for Finn Valtteri Bottas.

The 2011 GP3 Champion had been hoisted into F1 by Williams as a reserve driver in 2012, and so impressed the team with his intelligence, work ethic, and pace over 15 FP1 appearances that they awarded him a race seat for the 2013 season. Despite an outstanding qualifying performance in Canada and finally netting his first world championship points at Austin, Bottas’ inauguration proved difficult with the Renault powered FW-35 chassis.

Williams went on to sign an important partner, Martini, and were to benefit immensely from their shift to Mercedes power with 2014’s massive rule changes. Valtteri seized the opportunity and proved himself to be one of the sport’s toughest competitors.

“Well, I think just getting more experience–that was the main thing–and now last year being able to race at the very front, you learn a lot because the competition is always better.”

There’s no doubt that Williams rebound could not have come at a better time for Valtteri. Highly regarded engineer Pat Symmonds came on as Chief Technical Officer mid-2013.   No stranger to working with world champions, Symmonds told Autosport’s Ben Anderson, “I’m really impressed with him. He’s very bright and he’s very quick. He doesn’t make many mistakes and when he does he learns from them. He’s got a great personality and he’s a real team player and I’m absolutely convinced that he’s got the potential to be a world champion.”

“we’ll be much more competitive this year”

Bottas certainly proved himself worthy of that acclaim in 2014.   He twice earned first row grid starts, and netted six podiums (including two 2nd place finishes) on his way to finishing 4th in the driver’s standings. He drove magnificently on a number of occasions, most notably fending off a late challenge from Hamilton for a 2nd place finish at Hockenheim.

For a rise to the top of motorsport some might categorize as meteoric, Valtteri does not see it quite the same way; “I always knew if we could make a competitive car there’s no reason I couldn’t fight at the front. As a team we knew that we were in the right direction at the end of the 2013, and we knew that we could make a good step for ‘14.

He continues, “However, I think the step we made was a little bigger than anyone could expect, so it was a nice and positive surprise in the first race how competitive we were.”

The latest in a long line of Finnish drivers to grace the F1 grid, Valtteri should soon join them as Grand Prix winners. Keke Rosberg, Mika Salo, Mika Hakkinen, Kimi Räikkönen, and Heikki Kovalainen. Considering that three of these men are World Champions, that’s pretty exclusive company.

“When I was a kid Hakkinen was a big idol, he was a big hero for me and so when I got to try the go-kart, I then knew this is for me–this is what I love to do. He really motivated me a lot. I was looking up to him–that’s where I want to be one day. I immediately decided about F1 and set it as a target, so it was basically the first time I drove a go-kart.”

Bottas made a mark from the moment he started in karting at the age of six.   He competed across Europe until 2007, when he moved into Formula Renault where he won two separate titles in 2008. Bottas switched to F3 for 2009.   He became the first driver to twice win the prestigious Masters of Formula 3 Title, and gambled on a lateral move to GP3 in 2010, which placed him in the F1 paddock every weekend.   He earned the support of Toto Wolff, and further benefitted gaining management from his childhood idol Hakkinen and his long time manager Didier Coton. It wasn’t long before he caught William’s attention, who signed him as a test driver and gave him his first test run in a car that May.

Bottas later took the 2011 GP3 title and on the heels of that success was offered the reserve seat at Williams for 2012.   Asked if he knew the moment that he would make it to F1, Valtteri laughs, “when I signed the contract with Williams.”

Kidding aside, Valtteri took his achievement in pragmatic fashion, “Being quite a long time, you know, close to F1, and a test driver in F1, you see that a lot of things can happen and nothing is sure until the contract is done.”

Williams-Martini: contesting on a global stage

Competing across F1’s worldwide theater comes with certain trappings, all of which Bottas takes in his stride, “Sometimes, because we do get to go to different kind of events or filmings and stuff, and I’m not really an actor (laughs), I find that a bit harder than the driving.”

Staying on top of his time and energy so that he’s prepared, rested, and focused when the lights go out on Sunday is a challenge, and a priority.

“Yeah, you need to find a good balance in your life to be able to also charge your batteries because it is a lot traveling, a lot of driving, a lot of other events, time differences, everything.”

“For me the main thing is to spend some time with Emilia, my friends, family, that’s the best thing.   Even sports, you know even though it is for racing and it is physical exercise, but that somehow just really makes me relax a bit so I do a lot of sports as well.”

This is especially true over grand prix weekends.

“You work hard during the day between, obviously at the track, but also in the briefings, everything, and then when you’ve finished the day and you know you’ve given everything and then you can go to bed early–yeah, you can feel comfortable that you’ve done everything you can and tomorrow’s a new day and that you are well prepared.”

Considering how to best address the international challenge of the sport, Valtteri offers, “Well I think first thing is to choose good flights that you know don’t land middle of the night or crazy times, so always arrive so that you can go straight to bed. A good night sleep is the main thing, and always right nutrition. That’s really important so that you can quickly get into the rhythm. Exercise works for me–I think it’s quite individual, and again the more physically fit you are, the healthier the lifestyle is, the more you can take different stress from different time zones.”

Of course, being a grand prix driver has it rewards, so many in fact that Valtteri finds it hard to pick any part of the endeavor from it’s whole. “There’s plenty of interesting parts in a grand prix weekend. Qualifying is for sure one, but I think in the end it’s the race day. You can feel everyone is focused and looking forward, and if you get a good result that is really rewarding to see, you know, because everyone has to work really hard for the result and if you get a good one and how happy everyone is. Yeah, that’s the best bit.”

In reaction to F1’s new era, there’s been a lot of discussion of late that today’s F1 cars are too easy to drive. Valtteri takes an objective, philosophical view on the topic. “Well I think that any F1 car is easy to drive if you then want to drive it to the absolute limit and every single lap of the race it’s, you know, they are very different from the old cars. These cars are much more technical, so you also need to have much more technical understanding. You need to be better in multitasking with all the switches we have nowadays on the steering wheel and the power units are quite complicated systems as well. So to get everything perfectly you know it’s not that simple nowadays, even though some people say it’s easy. All I can say is that it’s very different and maybe different challenges in different eras.”

As for every flying Finn, also comes the obligatory question about rallying. “Yeah, I tried it once, on gravel, a proper rally car and other than driving always months in Finland on ice (laughs), we did some ice rallying in Lapland with BBC.”

“I was driving on a circuit so that helped, but yeah it’s very different and the cars, being 4 wheel drive–so it’s driving style is completely different. It’s really good fun, but I’ve always just preferred F1 where you can race actually at the same time with other people at the same track.”

Bottas appears for now very happy at Williams-Martini Racing, not only with the team, but with his teammate, Felipe Massa.

“There’ve been no problems between me and Felipe because we both have the same target we both want to push the team forward. We both want to win and we completely accept that we also want to beat each other and that’s normal because we are teammates and that’s how it goes, but at the same time we have the same target to improve the car so we work really closely with the team and also together to improve everything.”

Their cooperative relationship is paying off.   Williams-Martini enters the 2015 season stronger in relation to the entire grid than last year and could likely find them best suited to take the fight to Mercedes than anyone.

“From the first race last year we’ve improved a lot and I think we’ll be much more competitive this year,” Valtteri remarks. “ We’ve moved forward really well with the aerodynamics of the car so we’ve been able to produce more grip especially through the rear end.”

“We are still going to improve a lot I think and the engine also feels a bit better than last year. I think Mercedes at this point is still ahead of everyone and they are going to be really difficult to beat but I think it’s going to be quite close between us, Red Bull and Ferrari. So I think we’re gonna see nice really close season and I hopefully we can be at least one step better as we were last year as a team.”

. . . the top step, clearly in sight

There’s every reason to expect Bottas to take his first Grand Prix win this year.   It would be hard to discount his accomplishments to date, not to mention Pat Symmonds’ observations. Team principal Frank Williams, quoted by F1.com on their decision to promote Valtteri to his 2013 race seat, ““Valtteri is quite simply one of the most talented young racing drivers I have come across and we expect great things from him in the future.”

Lofty praise, but Bottas keeps his feet firmly planted on the ground.   “So yeah, I learned a lot about everything and where to improve- there’s always room to improve and I don’t see any big problem areas, just want to again, after every race, when you go to the next one I want to be sure that I’m a better driver than in the race before and just want to keep progressing.”

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