When Nico Rosberg shocked the motorsport world by calling time on his Formula One career just days after winning the 2016 World Championship, Valtteri Bottas soon emerged as the favourite to take his place at Mercedes. With Bottas’ seat now officially confirmed for 2017, Jennie Gow discusses the weight of expectation that now rests on the shoulders of the former Williams man.
It was a rainy September day in 2011 when I first met the young Finn, Valtteri Bottas. He was competing in a British F3 race weekend so that he could qualify for the Macau GP. It was a typical Donington day with squally showers making driving conditions tricky – and that was just me getting to the track!
In his first weekend competing in the British F3 Championship, he set the fastest lap and went on to win the reverse grid race, mastering the track in his Double R Racing Dallara-Mercedes and beating the best of the rest by 14.2 seconds. It was an impressive performance and one which stuck in my mind.
By that point, Bottas’ compatriot Kimi Raikkonen had stepped away from Double R and was no longer the owner of the team. Nonetheless, the Ferrari man will no doubt still feel a sense of pride that Bottas was once ‘one of his own’.
Fast forward to today, however, and as the boy who was once regarded as his protege seals a move to the World Champions, Raikkonen would be forgiven for feeling a little peeved.
For, if Bottas and Mercedes are to be a match made in heaven, then it is surely only a matter of time before the younger Finn becomes not just a race winner but also a Championship challenger for the 2017 title. While Raikkonen, in what might be his final season, faces another year at the helm of a Ferrari currently failing to impress.
Signing for Williams in 2010 as a test driver, the young Bottas had to wait until 2012 before he could get his hands on the car at a race weekend. Indeed, he had notched up no less than fifteen Friday outings as he came to grips with the FW34, sitting in for his then teammates Bruno Senna and Pastor Maldonado.
In 2013, Bottas got the call that he would be in the hot seat for the season, taking over from Senna. That season was largely unremarkable, apart from two performances. The first of which was the Canadian Grand Prix, which was truly inspiring. A rain affected qualifying on a street track was the perfect setting for Bottas to show his talents. He finished the session a surprise 3rd, beating the likes of Nico Rosberg, Mark Webber, Fernando Alonso and Raikkonen in the process. Driving with style and passion, it was a hint towards what might become for Bottas.
Then, in the penultimate race of the season, he scored what was at that point his best race result – an 8th place at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas. His first F1 points; his only F1 points that season.
However, it was to be the 2014 season that Bottas really found his feet. In a far superior Mercedes-powered Williams FW36, with the Hybrid era in its infancy, Bottas started to turn heads in the F1 paddock. And it was Round 8 – Austria – where the young Finn finally climbed the steps to the podium as he secured 3rd place behind Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, finishing ahead of his more experienced teammate, Felipe Massa. That season, he went on to finish 4th in the Championship, earning him links to some of the biggest teams in the paddock.
I can’t remember how many times I read that Bottas had signed a deal with Ferrari. And it was in the summer of 2015 that those rumours reached fever pitch. Every time Bottas spoke to the media, it was obvious which questions we were trying to get him to answer – Would he be taking Raikkonen’s Ferrari seat? When would it happen? How much was the deal worth? You name it, us journalists tried every trick in the book to get the Williams man to spill the beans.
Yet he never did. And the move never happened.
Nonetheless, the speculation and pressure of the situation clearly got to the usually cool Finn. He closed down and his on-track performances suffered as a result. It was the first time Bottas had been exposed to the viper-like frenzy that can exist when the media close in. Even with the best management team in the business – led by well-respected agent Didier Coton, guiding him alongside the business brains of now Mercedes Motorsport boss Toto Wolff, and two-time World Champion Mika Hakkinen – Bottas couldn’t help but become affected. After that experience, Bottas went on record to declare his intention to be more involved in his future, stating that he would be taking more control of decisions that were to come.
2016 saw Bottas start once again at Williams, not Ferrari. The season was to be another frustrating one, with both car and driver once again disappointing. Some questioned whether Bottas would ever get the chance to fulfill his potential.
However, as the season reached its conclusion, and the paddock reeled from the shock announcement that recently-crowned World Champion Nico Rosberg was going to quit the sport, one man emerged in plum position to get the golden ticket – Valtteri Bottas.
Newly-married to his Finnish Olympian wife, 2016 was set to get even better for the man from Nastola.
Rumours gathered pace when a leaked story about Bottas taking a secret trip to Brackley, the Mercedes-Benz HQ, started to bubble up around Christmas time – a period when us journalists typically have very little to talk about but a time during which, for many, deadlines still remain.
Nonetheless, it was increasingly looking like an obvious choice though for Bottas to take the seat. A young Finn; someone with excellent connections and a direct line to Toto Wolff. And as soon as Fernando Alonso ruled himself out of the running, the Mercedes seat became a one-horse race.
Finally, on Monday 16th January, Valtteri Bottas was confirmed as a Mercedes driver for 2017.
At the age of 27, he will become the 4th Mercedes driver of the modern era, following on from Michael Schumacher, Nico Rosberg and new teammate Lewis Hamilton. All of the aforementioned names have won World Championships. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before Bottas has a title of his own.
On a personal note, I couldn’t be happier for him. It might be a fair few years since we were together on the top step at Donington – with me conducting Bottas’ F3 post-race winners’ interview – but he has come a long way since then. He now has a very real chance to achieve something great.
Valtteri Bottas is a very nice guy; a peaceful soul but a top-notch, aggressive, out-and-out racer. He has a lot to live up to but he has experience of pressure and seems to know how to deal with it better now than he did some years ago. He will be leaving the safe and familial environment of Williams – which included competing against a teammate in Felipe Massa who was arguably past his prime – to head to an altogether more challenging and more highly expectant environment in reigning champions Mercedes.
It’s a totally different situation and set up, and Lewis Hamilton will be a very different person with whom to go head-to-head against.
Will Bottas be able to beat the best in the business? It will certainly be interesting to see if he can. With Hamilton in comeback mode, and Red Bull – as well as possibly now Ferrari – finding their form, a first World Championship is certainly not about to come easy. One thing’s for sure… This unassuming, quiet man will have to get used to the spotlight. After all, the world will be watching. And this time, all eyes will be on him.