Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix raised a handful of significant talking points. Does Mercedes’ pace and Ferrari’s lack of it provide irrevocable proof that only a madman would conclude anything meaningful after reading the runes of winter testing? Has Sebastian Vettel adopted Nigel Mansell as his role model vis-à-vis the moustache? And can anyone else think of a comeback as mighty as the one Valtteri Bottas pulled off?
F1’s owners crave a cinematic narrative, and this was straight out of Rocky Balboa’s playbook. Bottas had pushed Lewis Hamilton hard all through free practice and looked good for pole until the Briton conjured some last-gasp magic, as he so often does. What, the hugely likeable Finn must have thought, do I have to do to beat this guy?
In 2018, he fumbled for the answer from one race weekend to the next. Lewis won 11 races last year, Bottas none. This was the sort of demolition job that could end a career. In Melbourne, however, Valtteri did some thinking overnight, got into the car on Sunday afternoon, made an electrifying start, and proceeded to destroy Lewis and everyone else. He was so far ahead that whomever was controlling the broadcast feed simply ignored him in favour of the intense battles going on in the mid-field. OK, so his team elected to cover Vettel when they pitted Hamilton early. In light of Ferrari’s evaporating pace they needn’t have bothered. But Valtteri still delivered a performance of such dominance that even Lewis couldn’t keep up. Bottas had a near-21 second margin to his team-mate across the finishing line.
Maybe Albert Park’s quirks suited the Mercedes, and Valtteri. Maybe things will change again in Bahrain. Nevertheless, students of sporting psychology would have found much to dig into here. F1 fans the world over, meanwhile, heaved a sigh of relief that someone else appears ready to take the fight to Lewis, no matter that he’s driving for the same team…
And here’s the thing: you’d want it to be this guy. Unlike his fellow Finn Kimi Räikkönen, Bottas isn’t one for gnomic radio messages, and while he doesn’t fly under the radar exactly, he remains rather enigmatic. But don’t let that fool you; he’s a genuinely funny guy.
TG.com had a look at the Mercedes EQ Silver Arrows concept car a while ago, with Valtteri gamely agreeing to bring in his W09 for the shoot, and stick around for the images. He didn’t need to, and the pain of last season was still box-fresh. But he was a true pro throughout.
The EQ Silver Arrows exists to shine a light on Mercedes’ EQ pure-electric sub-brand, but also references the W125 Rekordwagen, the legendary stream-liner that Rudolf Carracciola drove into the history books in January 1938 when he achieved 460kph on a public road. That car’s 5.6-litre, 540kW V12 is now – and necessarily – a distant memory, the concept car showcasing Mercedes’ MEA (modular electric architecture), its single-seater configuration hiding an 80kWh battery and electrical architecture good for the equivalent of 550kW. The giant half-covered wheels use rose gold, and the thing measures a mammoth 5.3m in length. Even more startling, once you’ve managed to climb inside, is Mercedes-AMG F1 boss Toto Wolff appearing in glorious hi-def on the display intoning, ‘good driving’. Sadly, I was too far away to monitor Valtteri’s reaction when he tried the car for size. With much of the pit-lane agog at the car, including Sebastian Vettel, it was time for a catch-up.
TopGear.com: So I understand you’ve been configuring your AMG One…
Valtteri Bottas: I was like a kid in a candy shop. I went to Munich to do it, so I was able to attend Octoberfest while I was there. I like beer, so that was good. I was wearing the lederhosen, so it was a bit of a disguise. No one expected me to be there. Certainly not dressed in lederhosen.
TG.com: What colour did you go for on the car?
VB: I’m not going to tell you that… but apparently mine is the first that’s been ordered in that particular colour. And it’s not silver.
TG.com: Have you had a go in a prototype yet?
VB: I haven’t done any testing yet. At some point I’m going to be involved, I always ask Andy [Cowell, MD of Merc-AMG HPP] about it when I see him. But it’s early days, and it’s not running at full power yet. It’s looking like end of 2020 for the first cars to be delivered. But you’ve got to remember nobody has ever done this before, put an F1 engine into a road car. It’s not simple to make it work.
TG.com: Have you driven many old F1 cars?
VB: Yep. Rosberg’s 1982 Williams [FW08], Nigel Mansell’s 1992 car [FW14], and Damon Hill’s 1996 car. All at Silverstone.
TG.com: What was Copse like in the ’82 car?
VB: [laughs] Slow. Just because of the grip. And that was a car that held the outright lap record at Silverstone for years.
Those early cars are so simple, much slower round the lap, less downforce and mechanical grip, they slide more, the gearboxes are more difficult obviously, and the driveability of the engine is not as smooth. The current cars are so good to drive, they have so much torque, we can add the detail for the finest balance. It’s like a… what’s the thing you use when you’re making clothes? A sewing machine. In Finnish it’s ompelukone.
TG.com: That’s not a word I expected to hear… can you tell me how you go about dialling into the car, how to get the best out of it? It’s a science, but also very personal.
VB: You try different set-ups, you usually start by going a little bit over the limit so you’ll know what happen if you go too deep into the corner, or get too early on the gas. Different drivers use different cues to get a feeling for the car. Some use the feedback from the steering more, some might rely on the visual feedback. Of course, you use visual, sound, the g-forces, when you’re sliding… you have an inner gyro. You also do feel a lot of things through your ass. All the vibrations through the car, your whole body is taking in all the information. Once you’re at one with the car, then you know what’s going to happen next.
TG.com: What about the new tyres? Is it true that during last season many of the drivers were at as little as 50 per cent during some races…
VB: The new tyres should be more resistant to temperature changes. There should be less blistering. Yes, there were some races last year where we’d be at 50 per cent, unable to use the full potential of the car because of the same issues we had with the tyres. There are such temperature sensitivities. Whether it’s the inner temperature in the tyre, the bulk of the tyre, or the surface. There’s a very narrow window when it works. If it’s too cold, they tear themselves to pieces, if they’re too hot the same thing happens and they blister. To get it right, to cool the brakes, the set-up so that the tyres are running at the optimal temperature is extremely difficult. Most races we got there, but there were a few we didn’t. And it was the same for everyone else.
TG.com: Last season was tough. What’s your mind-set going into 2019?
VB: I’ll have to change something. That’s what I’m going to think about. This season  has gone so quickly, I can’t really give you any more than that.
TG.com: Do you have a psychologist?
VB: No. But maybe I need one. [pause] I’m joking. I never had. I’ve always found a way. I’ve been through ups and downs, and there’s always a way of getting to a positive place.
TG.com: It’s how you come back from difficult times that marks out a true sportsperson…
VB: Exactly. And it presents a great opportunity to improve.
First blood has gone to Bottas. Lewis, we know, is a formidable warrior. But this guy is going to bring it in 2019.
Original content: Bottas TopGear interview