The former world champion Damon Hill noted recently that Nico Rosberg was left with “his guts turned inside out” by the effort it took to beat Lewis Hamilton to the Formula One championship.
The pair were team-mates for four years and it all but wrecked a friendship that had begun in their teens. With the job done the German promptly retired meaning the task of matching Hamilton in a Mercedes this season now falls to Valtteri Bottas. It is a pairing that has no history, no baggage and as yet, absolutely no fear for the Finn. Hamilton is the de facto No1 driver in the team but there should be no doubt Bottas will be taking the fight to him.
The 27-year-old has yet to win an Formula One race from 77 starts but after four seasons with mid-table Williams he is now at the sharp end of the grid. Having joined a team who have won the past three drivers’ and constructors’ titles, he can gaze across the garage at a three-times world champion. A daunting prospect but one that appears to leave him entirely untroubled.
“Maybe there is something wrong with me as I don’t feel any pressure or fear,” he says. “I know what level my skills are and what I am capable of and what I am still yet to be capable of by getting better.”
He is thoughtful, considered and calm but with a genuine belief. It goes a long way to explaining why Mercedes chose him to replace Rosberg and why Hamilton is unlikely to be able to walkover him this season.
Bottas took to racing after chancing upon a kart track with his father when he was six. After an exploratory try, motor racing became his life and winning the F1 world championship his goal. Noted as an exceptionally talented youngster he did remarkably well to guide an underperforming ART car to the GP3 title in 2012 and by 2013 he had a full drive at Williams.
Sir Frank Williams called him “simply one of the most talented young racing drivers I have come across”. Pat Symonds, the former Williams technical director, compared him to a young Fernando Alonso and Claire Williams declared he was a future world champion.
There were performances to match. Qualifying in third with an outstanding lap in difficult wet conditions for the Canadian GP in 2013 was a statement in his first season and in 2014, with the Williams finally more competitive, he strung together four podiums from five races between the Austrian and Belgian grands prix. It included a remarkable performance at Silverstone where he moved from 14th on the grid to second. During that drive, he passed Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button around the outside at Stowe – brave and clever moves that would not have been possible without a perfect set-up in the preceding corners, Maggots, Becketts and Chapel.
It is that ability that is one of the reasons he could be a threat to Hamilton. His best season thus far was 2014, when he came fourth in the drivers’ championship, but the lacklustre Williams that followed in 2015 and 2016 led some to question whether he had been overhyped. Yet his cleverness at the wheel will not have diminished in that time, if anything he will have learned more. The Mercedes executive director, Toto Wolff, formerly one of Bottas’s management team, has already noted on several occasions that his racing intelligence is of a high level, a fact Symonds also highlighted, while the Finn is in no doubt he still has what is required behind the wheel. Asked if he can match Hamilton, the reply is immediate.
“Of course,” he says. “Lewis is one of the best drivers out there and it’s never going to be easy, but that’s something I am going to work at. You never want to be behind your team-mate at the end of the year, that’s definitely always going to be my goal. This year it is going to be more tricky than before but that’s also a motivator for me because I feel I have a lot to prove.”
From the team’s perspective he also fits the bill. His approach is no-nonsense and calm, he avoids flashpoints, working well alongside Felipe Massa at Williams and defusing two on-track incidents with Kimi Raikkonen in 2015.
Hamilton has so far offered only praise for his new team-mate, as have Mercedes who pointed out how quickly he had adapted to the new environment.
He has a year-long contract and in 2018 Sebastian Vettel and Alonso will both be available. It is a motivating factor. As long as he keeps it clean and within the team’s rules of engagement, Bottas simply has nothing to lose by throwing himself wholeheartedly into the battle with his team-mate.
“The team is definitely closely watching my performance and Lewis is the reference,” he says. “I am happy with that, I know this year is going to be important for me to prove to the team that I deserve this spot, I am completely fine with that.”
Which of course might be expected to be an additional burden but for Bottas it is just part of the challenge in the chance of a lifetime. “I always remind myself the only thing that matters is I perform on track and that’s all I need to do,” he says, before returning to his original assertion. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I feel no pressure at all.”