Valtteri Bottas’ 2017 began as a replacement for the current F1 world champion, racing for the dominating team over the last few years, as the new teammate of an all-time great F1 talent in, Lewis Hamilton. Facing a tough challenge, he won the first three races of his career, and for half the season was in serious contention for the F1 drivers’ championship. Yet a post-summer slump, tire problems and some poor luck hampered his raw pace and ruined his title hopes. In this interview, he discusses his rise to a top team in Mercedes F1, his brutally honest analysis of his own performance over the past season and his thoughts for the upcoming year.
In his own words…
Mercedes & Teamwork
F1 is often perceived to be just about the “fastest racing drivers” in the world. What role do you think a united team plays in the overall success?
Massive. As a team, we have been and always have to be really united. Just to give you some idea, we have about 1000 people in Brackley, working on two cars – it’s a big organisation! And, then on top of that, we have the engine factory in Brixworth with another 500 people. It means 1500 people are working together for those two cars. In F1, every team is quite big, and it needs to be, because the team can make a massive difference to whether you can win or not.
What came as a bit of a surprise to me this year was the positive team spirit, and how the team is always doing a lot of work to build and maintain that. The leaders of the team have realised it’s value and do a lot of work to keep the team united. When you do things together, you can achieve far greater objectives.
By the end of the season, Mercedes ran away with the title, however Ferrari did pose a tough threat. How did the team cope with that added competition and pressure, particularly early in the season when Ferrari seemed as quick a car as the Mercedes?
It can be difficult. One example from this year, when we faced a pretty tough time was early in the season at the Monaco GP. We were way off the pace, much slower than the Ferraris, and even the Red Bulls, although we managed to beat them. Being so far off the pace was a real low point and a wake-up call for us
For me, as at that point, I had only been a member of the team for a few months; it was amazing to see how the team reacted to that kind of disappointment. We are not happy when we finish 4th. The team responded in a way, which made me proud to be a member. Nobody was crying or overreacting, just immediate wake-up calls. Lots of team meetings after the race, discussions on how to react to different things, how to still achieve our goal and defend our title. In addition, the team was working 24/7 – literally!
I went to the factory the week after this tough race, saw the tire specialist who was originally from Michelin, and works with tire temperature, pressure, grip level and ensures that all those things are perfect. It seemed like he hadn’t slept for two days, so I asked him, are you ok? And, he said, yes, just haven’t slept for two days! He was just looking at the data and trying to find out why we were so slow and didn’t have grip.
And, this is just one person’s story. There were many examples of that in the entire factory. I love that kind of mentality. Myself, I am from Finland, and we have that same mentality of never wanting to give up. We can be selfish at times, but we are also fundamentally team players and two weeks after, at the next race, we managed a 1-2 finish.
We didn’t win the championship at that exact point but it was a big moment for us.
It gave us courage and confirmed that we could react strongly to any tricky situation by working as a team and are confident in our response.
The pressure of driving for a top team appears different when compared to being at a midfield team. Has your approach changed from racing for a midfield team to fighting at the front now?
The intensity of F1 and the work that goes into it means it could never be possible for me even for a second to lift my work ethic. My performances and the desire always came from the support of the team, and my personal drive.
With Mercedes, came a massive opportunity, as most likely I could have a chance to fight for the championship, which does do something extra for your work ethic. I am not saying I didn’t work hard at Williams because I did 100%, but at Mercedes, I found an extra gear.
In your view, what are the main differences between working at Williams and Mercedes F1?
It is simple; the number of people and amount of resources available are different. It is no secret that in F1, certain teams have more resources, bigger factories and can develop further. This can help some teams build better cars before the season and develop during the season much more aggressively.
The size of the team was a big change, but I also noticed the mentality shift – the idea that absolutely nothing less than winning is enough.
To be clear, I am not saying anything bad about Williams because they have been such a good team in history and were so good to me. But, more recently, they have had tricky times and then it is more difficult to maintain the positivity. The mentality and commitment, which every staff member had to winning every session, every race and the focus on the championship was a change.
What is the dynamic of a team like, particularly at the front, where the driver being a worldwide celebrity, has to work very closely on a daily basis with ‘regular’ engineers?
Well, the drivers and engineers are the same team, so it doesn’t change anything. We are all in the same hospitality unit during the weekend, use the same bathrooms, I don’t regard myself as above or below anyone else in that sense – the spirit of the team has to be equality in the whole weekend.
The first race engineer at Williams that I had, used to study at Oxford and was a really clever guy. Now he works at another team, and we always got on very well. It is very important to have good trust and a strong relationship between the driver and the team.
Why did you not bring any of your engineers from Williams to Mercedes?
I worked with a great team at Williams, really enjoyed and had a great relationship with them. But the reason for not doing so was simple: I had so many things to learn and get used to in a new team and I thought it would be easier to learn it from experienced members already at Mercedes.
For a while though, I was considering it. I had even asked the team if it would be possible or not before moving. But after thinking more deeply about it, I realized I already had to learn so many things, so it would not be great if the closest engineers I was working with also had to learn these new things, be familiar with how the team operates and the new car technically, and also to get to know the people.
It would just not be ideal, so I decided to go with the experience of the team, and had the opportunity to go with the same engineers as Nico Rosberg had when he won the championship. Looking back, it was definitely the right choice. It made my adaptation to the team much quicker because people around me knew exactly how the team operated.
Do you have a specific pre-race routine?
There is no specific way to prepare myself for the race. I just focus on doing all the work that should be done before the race. I actually think it is difficult to build a specific routine before races because we always have a lot of extra stuff on – and that is not necessarily scheduled, like interviews, sponsor events and meeting guests. Each race weekend is a bit different.
As long as I get a bit of time to myself before the race and I have done all the work I could for the race, I feel comfortable.
Some races do not appear to be as action-packed to a viewer– how does a more ‘boring’ race feel inside the cockpit?
You never get bored in the car, even in races where there is nothing obvious to fight for. You have to be 100% focused. Just being in an F1 car and racing hard is exciting. Moreover, yes, in many races, there are a few things happening, most exciting bit in Mexico was just the start. Things happening in first couple of corners but since then no swapping positions. However, you need to keep 100%, focus entirely. Corner after corner, lap after lap. No time to get bored.
In a sport of small details, does the mental aspect take on an even greater role?
Yes, absolutely. This mentality in the team is the main reason we have won everything over the last few years. It is so important to be honest, and to be self-critical. Both as an individual and in a team, you have to know how to improve yourself, and that is mainly from the mental aspect.
Going forward in a career, business, sport or whatever you do, being 100% self-honest and noticing every small mistake you commit, can be tough, but it is necessary.
Being so self-critical has made me much better, especially during this year.
I am not afraid to look into the mirror and recognize possible mistakes, and it is the same with the team. The team has the same way of looking at itself critically, and it is the only way to find and fix the core issues.
If I had to give advice to anyone, it would be that to always be honest with yourself and trust yourself. There is no limit to what you can do personally and what you can do as a team if you are united and honest with each other.
Nico Rosberg has spoken a lot about the different mental exercises he used, the year he won the championship. Is there any kind of mental training you practice?
I don’t have specific mental training of any kind. I have developed during my career to know myself better and better, and to find out the best ways to be fully rested and concentrated.
It would be ideal to be 100% at all the races but that is quite tricky. We can always aim to be a little bit closer to find the actual peak. Every person is different of course, but what lifts my confidence and gives me mental strength is preparation.
When I feel like I have done everything, for pre-season or just practice or whatever, if I have done all the work I could, both mentally and physically and I know what is going on with the team that is when I feel most confident. I always try and remind myself of that during the race weekend.
This year, there have been moments where you have had to give your place up to Lewis during a race. Is that the worst feeling for a racing driver?
With team orders that is unfortunately part of the business. Yes, it has happened to me, sometimes, this past year. But for me, it is fine, because I knew coming into the season that we were always on equal terms. Both of us had the same chance to win the race and fight for the title, I trust the team. Always equal machinery.
If the team needs one teammate to let by another there is always a reason behind it, and I trust the team’s judgement. For the team, the focus is always the Constructors Championship. So, we were both in that situation this year and always obeyed it.
Normally, if you have to do it, it means that I have underperformed for some reason or there is some issue with the car, so either it is unlucky or it is completely up to you.
Why does Finland produce so many great drivers?
Good question. I think it is because Finland is a motorsport country and people just love motorsports. We have 5.5 million people in Finland, a lot less than any other major racing country. But importantly, lots of young kids practice go karting. The level of go karting is very high from a very young age. This naturally helps develop skills and the best drivers.
I also think, that the mentality is quite good as we are normally able to stay quite calm, which is needed and helps a lot in F1.
What also helps me was that I had a racing hero in Häkkinen. He motivated me massively, 2 world team champion and a national hero. Therefore, we always had top drivers and role models for the top young drivers.
Do you expect more young Finnish drivers to join F1 in the Future?
It’s never a guarantee with young drivers. Finnish racing drivers have always seemed to be there, and Finnish motorsport fans are a bit used to it and are always expecting a Finnish driver, that they can support. But, it is never a guarantee. The country needs to support young talent the best way it can, the same for every sport.
No one can do it alone, I received so much financial support from Finland from different people and companies. Mika Häkkinen became my manager in 2008 and he helped me massively in my career, both as an inspiration and in terms of getting into F1. So who knows? Maybe one day I can help a young kid as well – but a bit far away for me right now.
This year was particularly popular as there were multiple teams fighting for the win and the championship. Do you expect that to be the case next year as well?
I think, normally with a big regulation change like at the start of this year, especially with new aero, there can be big differences with teams. However, this season was already very close, so that is why we are all expecting a really tough battle for both titles next year.
So, we will not be chilling and enjoying too much with the constructors we achieved this year. We know that the other teams will be pushing up with development and trying hard. They are chasing us, so we need to make sure that we keep setting and meeting our top targets.
What are you most looking forward to in the next season?
Well, this year was my first year in the team, so a bit of a learning curve. I look forward to working with the team from the start of the year without having to know 1500 people from scratch.
This year I didn’t just have to learn the specifics about the car, but even more basic stuff, how it handles. Instead, I can focus immediately on the top performance. Knowing the people and team already means I think the next season can allow me to be much better and stronger next year.
There has been a lot of social media and TV criticism over stewards’ decisions this year. Going forward, how do you think F1 stewardship can get more consistent?
Well, it is difficult, because no two situations are a hundred percent the same; there is always different scenarios. I have no answer for that; that is actually for the stewards to think about and try to improve things. But of course, they are always researching a lot of the old cases and what was happening then, what decisions were made etc. So I’m sure they’re working on it, but I have no answer for that.
Do you have a favorite track or race weekend?
Suzuka, Japan – since the first year I went there it was absolutely my favorite. This year I actually performed quite poorly so maybe I choose another one! No, I still love it.
I like the old-school circuits, a bit more narrow, a bit less run-off area, which means penalties on mistakes are heavier. Few circuits are a bit like massive car parks with painted lines. So if you make a mistake, brake too late for a corner, there is no real penalty, you can just go off and then go on.
I like the idea that if you make a mistake, you pay the price. Monaco also. It is so difficult as a track, but unique and a great challenge. I always like to race there as well.
Who are your favorite people to spend time with in the paddock?
To be honest, I don’t spend that much time with the drivers outside of the track. We all compete with each other for a lot of the year and are busy.
I have no issues with anyone, we all get along very well, but is the same for every driver.
In between races we are all super busy, and if we have free time sometimes, we want to spend time with families and so on. I definitely enjoy spending some time with team members back at the factory.
What is your passion outside cars and F1?
Cars (laughing). No, I do love other thigs as well. I am a quite a typical Finn. I love the outdoors, hot tub, and a cold beer.
But honestly, I am just a big fan of the outdoors. It is a great way for me to relax, especially when I get back to my hometown in Finland. There are lots of lakes and forests near my hometown. Beautiful place to visit and hike. I love spending my time outside.
When I lived in England I became a fan of clay pigeon shooting and skeet shooting. I still do that quite a bit. That is another hobby.
I also like sport, I played ice-hockey for a while, maybe 10 years. Of course, with the length of time I get with my family and friends it is sometimes difficult (to play), but that is important time away from the paddock.
There was a big difference in the results after the summer break – a lot of that has been attributed to car development not suiting your driving style. Is that analysis accurate?
For sure, there were some small details and small things to do with my driving style that didn’t help. For instance, the tires tend to overheat and my style didn’t necessarily suit certain tracks, certain surfaces of the tracks. Also, sometimes with a little less experience of the car, we may have gone a bit in the wrong direction in terms of set up, which is a huge part of the weekend.
There were multiple reasons, and for sure, if you have even just a few bad reasons, it is not easy to recover mentally. I had some battles inside my head, and that’s why the last few races of the season, I think I made a big step forward again. It is always more important to stay focused and hardworking in difficult times.
At what point in the weekend do you have a good idea as to the tire strategy for the race? Is it based a lot on previous years’ data and weather/track temperatures, or do the free practice sessions play a big role?
Coming to a weekend, we always already have some kind of an idea. There are a lot of simulations the team run, all the previous years have been looked at, all the measurements for this season have been done before the race weekend.
And then during the race weekend, we collect a lot of data from the practice sessions. We do long runs to learn about the tire wear with different compounds. We have to take note of all the weather changes, you know, temperatures, if it is going to be cloudy or sunny, wet or dry, etc.
And, we also need to anticipate the track improvement during the weekend which will always influence the tire wear. So, the best place is going to be just before the race, basically, or after the qualifying. The strategy depends where you qualify, on which tire, what is your starting position, what kind of cars are around and what kind of strategy they are most likely going to take. Then we have to make our plan A and B, and maybe plan C based on that. It’s an ongoing process, starting a lot before the race weekend. And for the strategy and the plan, we keep learning during the weekend in the practice sessions, the final decisions are made on Sunday morning.
What are your thoughts on the HALO? Is introducing it a popular decision amongst the drivers?
I don’t think it is very popular in terms of how it looks, and everyone’s opinion (regarding the) aesthetics is not maybe that positive. But I think most of the drivers are backing it because of the safety. It will be a safety device, it can prevent injuries, even save lives, so that is why it is mostly positive.
F1’s history is full of great rivalries like Prost-Senna, Häkkinen-Schumacher, even Vettel-Alonso. Has there been another driver or teammate that you have had such a rivalry with?
Well, Lewis beat me this year! In F1, he was the first teammate to beat me in qualifying and races, he is definitely a good driver and a worthy many times world champion. I expect a good rivalry with him next year also.
What is your relationship like with Lewis?
I didn’t know him that well before I joined the team. Of course, I had spoken to him a few times in the paddock and when I saw him. There was always an opinion about him but I like to make my own opinion when I meet people and get to know them.
I always knew he was a massively talented driver and quick. This year I learnt that, not only is he talented and fast, but is also incredibly hard working. He works really well together with the team and with me.
He is a normal human being like the rest of us, and a nice guy, a team player. We agreed in Melbourne we did not want to play any games (mind games). We just wanted to be the best on the track and be ahead of our teammate.
Both of us understand that we want to do that, and there is always only one who will be ahead. Just because of that, we can still work well together. Long term, and especially in difficult times, it is working together and being united that gets us the best results.
I have learnt quite a bit from him and only have good things to say.
Did you have a personal preference in having Lewis or Massa as a teammate?
Not at all! Both are good drivers, and nice guys. Great, different personalities. Maybe Felipe because I managed to beat him! However, no, I respect both of them greatly!
For me, it comes down to having a good relationship with every teammate. 2-way respect. How you approach a situation. What kind of mentality you put to the team mate relationship, should be positive. Cannot be a personal problem; have to think just about what is best for the team.