Earlier this year, we talked about Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 Team’s dominant performance in a pandemic-delayed 2020 season. In the ensuing months, the team continued to decimate the field – barring a few hiccups (including a rare blunder at the Sakhir Grand Prix), it won nearly every race and pole position on its way to securing its seventh consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
You might believe that it was an easy feat, so imperious was its performance this year. But peeling back the curtains reveals that a strong work ethic, a candid willingness to learn from mistakes, and an effective partnership with title sponsor Petronas have enabled Mercedes to perform at such a high level – even in years where the title race was close. Like it or not, you can’t argue with its methods.
Today, we sit down with Valtteri Bottas. For the past four years, the Finnish driver has played a key role as Lewis Hamilton’s wingman and as a genuine title contender in his own right. The latter was especially true in 2020, but a string of poor performances and bad luck have put paid to his hopes, in addition to putting his second place in the standings in jeopardy.
In a short 15-minute session with regional media, we ask Bottas about the pressure to perform against Hamilton’s outstanding performances and amid fresh questions about his form, as well as his confidence in securing second in the 2020 championship. This is what he had to say.
Q: How important is Petronas’ contribution to Mercedes’ record-breaking seventh consecutive titles?
A: Of course, the relationship between Mercedes and Petronas has been going on over a decade, so it’s been a long journey and a successful journey so far, and I’m in no doubt that in the future it can be as well. I always think about the fluids in the car that Petronas provides as the blood of the heart, and the engine is obviously the heart.
So it’s super important in terms of performance and reliability, and that is something that our team is well known for, as you can see from the results. This ongoing technology push on the fluids’ side, working together [with Mercedes], it’s definitely a big part of the success we’ve been getting in these past years.
Q: For such a small country, Finland has a rich history in Formula 1, with drivers like Keke Rosberg, Mika Häkkinen and Kimi Räikkönen. Why do you think your country has such a strong representation and success in the sport, and who are your childhood heroes?
A: I think in Finland, the big thing was that as a young kid doing go-karting, there were always heroes and people that we’d look up to. For me, it was Mika Hakkinen. [Having had the accident] in ’95 in Adelaide and then recovering from that and becoming a double world champion, that was something that was super inspiring for me, so I think that made me push even further and work harder to become a driver one day.
In Finland, motorsport is really part of the culture – anything with an engine, there is always a racing series for it. Maybe some of the series are not well known, but whether it’s on two wheels or four wheels, there are lots of categories. The level of go-karting is very good, although we can only race in the summer – in the winter it’s more difficult with the snow!
But yeah, the level is very, very high, so that brings up the competition from a young age. I believe the mentality of the Finns is really good for the sport because we need to be able to stay calm no matter what, and the kind of mental determination that I think we have as a nation is only a bonus for any sport – for sure for motorsport as well.
Q: Being at Mercedes is a bit of a double-edged sword. It does allow you to win races and compete for the championship, but it also puts you up against Lewis Hamilton – who we all wish a speedy recovery. You always get comments like “it’s all about the car” and “other drivers could beat Hamilton in the same car”, sometimes downplaying your own performances. What are your thoughts on this?
A: First of all, I’m really proud as a member of this team that we’ve been able to make history in recent years, and with all the success we had together and the opportunities provided, I wouldn’t change a thing. And also being against Lewis, it’s been a great motivation. In terms of numbers, he is the most successful F1 driver in history, so it’s a great motivation to try and be better than him.
It’s not easy, and I’ve had many, many defeats. But I’ve also had wins, and in terms of pure pace, it’s getting closer and closer. That really keeps me going and I wouldn’t want anything in an easy way, so I don’t see that as a negative thing. For sure, people are always going to compare – that’s the nature of this sport, and that’s what it is – but it’s only going to motivate me.
Q: It’s safe to say that the team has done well this season, outclassing the other teams. What is the key to the team’s performance?
A: There’s no one thing, it’s multiple things in a team that makes up the performance. For sure the partnership with Petronas makes a big difference. Because of that, we’ve been definitely one of the most not the most reliable team over the years and we’ve always been collecting the points when others have failed, basically. I think it’s the consistency in the team.
It’s not always easy to stay at the top because all the other teams have a clear goal of trying to chase us, trying to beat us. But for us, we need to make our own goals, our own targets, if we want to stay on top. I think in recent years, that has been the key, that we’ve been really setting clear targets – realistic but brave targets – that all the departments of the factory and every single team personnel have been able to meet.
We go for that together and we are supportive and honest, admitting mistakes, learning from mistakes. There’s so much talent in this team – in the race team and in the factories – and quality and motivation in the people, that are bringing these amazing results that we’ve been getting lately.
Even for me, it’s really motivating to watch and follow the drive that the team has. It’s very much the mental mindset, willing to do whatever it takes to be the best, and that applies to every team member.
Q: Being matched up to Hamilton, does that change your mentality when it comes to the races – perhaps making you push harder or choose a different strategy in the race? And what will you be doing or changing to mount a stronger challenge next year?
A: I think being against Lewis, for sure it is mentally draining because I have to always give a hundred per cent every single race week and try to be at my best capability. But I believe that is the same for every driver if they have the same mindset and they want to perform at their very best. It’s a challenge, sure, but it’s also very rewarding when I get the results; when I get to be on top of my game and be better than Lewis.
The feeling, the reward from that always feeds into my motivation to be better. Like I said earlier, I wouldn’t have anything easy, I want to earn the results and it’s definitely in me to do it. For me, I’m in a good situation.
For next year, it’s not about big things. If you break down every race week, it’s the small things that have made the difference, that I need to perfect. There’s no one particular area, just small things here and there that I will need to nail every single race week. I know that I have it within me because I have been able to win races, so it’s about getting the small things together and just build on this year.
I’ve been able to progress each year, so I need to keep doing that, keep working hard and eventually, the hard work will pay off.
Q: Do you own any of your former Formula 1 cars, any of the cars from your junior career? Do you wish to build a collection when you finish racing, or do you see the cars as being the tools of your job, and that it’s the success and the achievements that you take away from racing?
A: I’ve actually been chasing the first go-kart that I started racing with, so I’ve been trying to chase that but still no success, I don’t know where it is. It would be a nice memory, where it all started, and eventually, it would be nice to have something where it all ended.
I actually have one car, the 2014 Williams that I had my first podium in at Austria. That season with Williams was really successful and the team wanted to compensate me more at the end of the year, so it gave me that car as a gift. That’s now in a secret place where hopefully one day I can build a bigger collection. It might be expensive to get all the cars, but if there’s a way, it would be nice to have some memories.
Q: It’s tight between you and Max Verstappen in the championship. How important is second in the standings, or is it not important if it’s not first?
A: For sure, it’s not first, so it’s not quite as important. But I’d still rather be second. I always push every season to try and get maximum points and try to finish as high as possible, and I feel our team would deserve to be one-two in the championship. And with the car that we have this year, I think it would be a shame if I was third. [laughs]
So yeah, definitely still pushing for that. It’s pretty close, and especially with the bad race I had last weekend [Bahrain] and the weekend before, Max is pretty close in the points. It should be interesting, the last two races, and the Red Bull in Max’s hands doesn’t look too shabby, so it could be an interesting couple of races.
NOTE: Bottas’ run of bad luck continued at the following Sakhir GP. He was running second behind Hamilton stand-in George Russell, but during a late safety car period, the team botched a double-stacked pit stop. He eventually finished eighth ahead of Russell, but Verstappen was taken out early in the race.
At the final race in Abu Dhabi, Bottas finished second behind Verstappen, but ahead of a recovering Hamilton. Despite placing behind the Dutchman, the Finn managed to hold on to second place in the championship by just nine points, at 223 points versus 214.
Q: Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak with the Petronas Trackside Fluid Engineers (PTFE) about their analysis of race fluids – including Primax fuels, Syntium engine oils and Tutela transmission fluids – and their role in maintaining Mercedes’ stellar reliability. As a driver, how do their inputs help you race and get the most out of the car?
A: We have some Petronas fluid engineers at every single Grand Prix. They are basically making sure that everything is functioning well, taking samples and detecting if there are any worries or risk with any particular part of the car. They make sure that the fluids are functioning and there is no extra material in the fluids post-session; they can detect if something is about to happen, something is about to go wrong.
Having them there and seeing them and chatting with them every now and then just gives me the confidence that everything is under control, and I trust that the car is going to see the chequered flag in the race. They’re doing their job and I’m also busy with my work in terms of obviously driving, but also working with my performance and race engineers.
So we’re doing different things but it gives me the confidence that we can race at the full performance without worrying about anything.
NOTE: We were also scheduled to talk with Lewis Hamilton after the Bahrain Grand Prix, but two hours before our interview was due to commence, it was announced that the seven-time world champion had tested positive for the coronavirus and the interview was called off.
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