Why Bottas still believes he can beat Lewis Hamilton to the F1 world title

After each race Valtteri Bottas makes a point of looking himself in the mirror. It isn’t a metaphor for the soul-searching most drivers do as they fly home on a private jet — he actually does it. Staring back at himself, he goes through the weekend’s events — good or bad — and when he’s finished analysing, he gives himself a brutally honest assessment.

“Sometimes I say, ‘You’re a f—ing c—! You are stupid!’ and sometimes I say, ‘You are the best’,” he told ESPN in a typically straight-talking interview. “I just like being honest with myself.

“You can always improve and there are always excuses of all kinds in this sport, but accepting your weaknesses and strengths is what works for me.”

In his recent meetings with the man in the mirror, his language might be getting increasingly coarse. The realities of being Lewis Hamilton’s teammate have started to hit home as the five-time world champion in the other Mercedes has opened up a 39-point lead in the standings with five wins from the last six races. Bottas, meanwhile, hasn’t won a race since the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in April.

Against any other driver, that points deficit might seem recoverable. Bigger championship leads have been overturned in the past and a couple of reliability issues on Hamilton’s car would change the picture completely. Yet to almost everybody in the paddock, the deficit looks unconquerable.

But not to Bottas.

‘Never give up’

Stitched into the peak of Bottas’ blue Mercedes cap is a simple message: “Never give up”. It’s a philosophy that goes to the core of what the Finnish driver is all about and is the result of a backstory that started in the small town of Nastola, Finland nearly 20 years ago.

“During my childhood my family risked a lot financially,” he explains. “They put every single penny they could into my racing and also their free time was completely compromised.

“There were many things in my childhood I sacrificed: I started travelling quite young, compromising school in terms of learning and time with friends doing normal stuff as a kid you want to do. But obviously I wouldn’t change a day.

“When I was 12 there was a big shift in mindset and I realised that if I want to get something out of it then I need to work hard and focus all my energy just for this sport and that’s when I started training and taking things more seriously. I became a lot more self-critical and analysed the driving more and more, and that was when I was 12.”

Now approaching his 30th birthday, Bottas needs to be more self-critical than ever. Only two teammates have beaten Hamilton over the course of a full season — Jenson Button in 2011 and Nico Rosberg in 2016 — and there were clear reasons for both.

In 2011, the dominance of Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull meant there was no championship at stake between Hamilton and Button, lessening some of the competitive edge. What’s more, Hamilton was breaking up with his longtime girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger and the turmoil in his private life appeared to overflow into his professional life. The Hamilton of 2019 is a much more balanced man and he shows none of the fragility of the McLaren-era Hamilton.

The 2016 season is potentially a more useful example for Bottas to learn from, as a title was on the line and it was during Hamilton’s Mercedes career. Rosberg’s championship challenge was built on a foundation of reliability issues for Hamilton early in the year but, to give Rosberg his credit, he played the percentages in the second half of the season and sealed the deal.

Yet the mood inside the Mercedes team in 2016 was very different to the calm of the current squad. Rosberg used that divisive undercurrent to his advantage, but by the end of the season he was completely spent and retired from the sport. That heralded Bottas’ arrival at Mercedes and with it the team became a stronger, more cohesive unit, and he has made clear he has no desire to upset that.

Above all else, it’s not in Bottas’ nature to employ the psychological warfare Rosberg doled out so effectively. Put simply, he wouldn’t be able to face the man in the mirror.

“I have found for me, and it should be the same for everybody, that it is easiest just to be how you are,” he adds. “Be the true you and there is no need to act differently. It has always been like that.”

As a result, Bottas has committed himself to beating Hamilton in a straight fight. Everyone will have an opinion on whether that’s possible, but the Bottas we have seen this year is undoubtedly the best of his career. That improvement was fuelled by a disappointing 2018 season in which he not only finished fifth in the drivers’ standings, but was also roped into being a clear support driver to Hamilton in the second half of the season.

“I analysed last year a lot,” he says. “I think the main thing was that I started quite strong, but there were multiple, multiple defeats in a row for different reasons. From China or Baku onwards there was a massive period of always feeling negative after Sunday and that, for sure, drags you down.

“And then on top of that, in the points you are far down and you need to become, in at least some kind of way, a support driver rather than going for the championship. And that’s difficult to accept with the goals you set for the season.

“That spread quite a bit of negative energy and you end up not enjoying the driving part as much as you should. For me, the more I enjoy the driving and am happy in the car, you see immediately the result. I was way, far off from enjoying driving at the end of last year. I think that was a big thing.”

The 2018 season also brought about a realisation that opportunities to line up on the grid in the fastest car are limited in any driver’s career. Bottas went into 2019 vowing to be more selfish with his time off track while pushing the boundaries on track.

“It was a bit of a wake-up call last year. I realised that, in the end, I have just one career, so I had better go forward. I am usually consistent and risk free as a driver, I haven’t had many crashes with other drivers in races, so there was a bit of margin for me to be a bit more shortsighted with things.”

He added: “In my downtime I now do the things that I want to do. It’s important to follow the training programme and have a core plan of what to do in training to stay fit, but that has been adjusted quite a bit so if I feel like I want to go for a bike ride instead of going to the gym then I do that and go to the gym some other day.

“And if I want to have a day off, go on the boat and get smashed then I do it. I don’t hesitate at all. It is more flexible and relaxed, to keep that positive feeling the whole time and enjoy life.”

How to beat Hamilton

But while Bottas has improved this year, it hasn’t been quite enough. In qualifying he has closed the gap to Hamilton and beaten him on four occasions, but the average gap between the two over the first ten races is still 0.076s in Hamilton’s favour. Against a teammate as good as Hamilton, such small margins can quickly become big points deficits and in races the gap between the two has been even bigger.

But for Bottas there is no mystery to Hamilton’s pace. He sees his teammate’s telemetry, sits in the same engineering meetings and knows where the differences are.

“His strengths in general have been in slow speed corners, normally under braking and the entry phase and he can sometimes drive a bit of a different setup for the car that is easier for the rear tyres,” he explains. “Those are the main things but he is also super consistent. I think his level of concentration when it comes down to qualifying is on a very good level, so he rarely makes mistakes when he needs to perform and he delivers when he needs to.

“So for me it’s still about finding the consistency on that and be on top of my game every single time. And race pace — his race pace and tyre management is good. If there are differences in the race pace it is normally because the tyre is overheating on my side.”

Even if he could, there would be no point in looking at the data and simply copying what Hamilton does in the car. Bottas needs to be better than his teammate — not equal to him — and to do that he must play to his own strengths.

“You can definitely see [the differences in the data], but it is not always that simple to do it in the car. Many things that you learn as a kid are welded into your driving style and sometimes changing those can be difficult, so it is always balancing out trying to use all the big amounts of data we get and drive with your own instinct.”

One element that has helped Bottas’ develop his driving this year is the addition of Riccardo Musconi as his race engineer. Musconi was previously Hamilton’s performance engineer but was promoted to his new role over the winter when Bottas’ former engineer, Tony Ross, moved to head up the engineering arm of Mercedes’ Formula E team. While Ross is a very capable race engineer and was behind Rosberg’s championship success in 2016, having a key member of the engineering team from Hamilton’s side of the garage has opened up new areas of improvement for Bottas.

“Change can always be very good,” he explains. “I managed to take on board everything I learned with Tony in the years before but have had quite a different view in terms of setup and setup philosophy [with Musconi]. So combining those was a nice thing and I would say especially at the first four or five races this year, setup wise, I was really pleased with it from the get go.

“I think a couple of races recently we have been a tiny bit lost and had to make some big adjustments before qualifying and found out in the race that it was maybe not the best setup, but that’s life.

“For sure, I got some good things from the other side of the garage and what they used to do with Lewis. But actually there were many races in the beginning of the year when Lewis actually followed the way I was going with the setup and copied my setup before qualifying.”

So, the big question, how does Bottas tip the balance in the second half of the year and close the gap? There is no simple answer, but he believes he still has one key strength over his teammate.

“I think I’m hungrier for the wins,” he said. “I think that’s a big strength.

“I still haven’t achieved anything compared to my personal goals in F1, so I am definitely working harder than ever before.”

By the end of the year, the man in the mirror will be able to tell him whether that was enough.

www.espn.com – RPM

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