When Valtteri Bottas was handed his first full-time Williams F1 drive in 2013, he was somewhat of an unknown. Indeed, all rookies tend to be. Some knew him as the team’s test driver the previous year, others for his dominant GP2 season in 2011 and some fans, not at all.
Even last year, when the Finn fired up his Williams FW35 in anger, his potential was not quantifiable. Only one thing was clear, the silence of the unfulfilling challenger was evident; it was one of the worst cars in their history. The V8 engine era, and the regulations which appeared alongside it, were not kind to the largely independent team and their limited resources but with a popular driver pairing, they are back near the top.
Bottas is typical of his nationality – he is quiet, methodical and modest. He does not speak ill of his own performances or of his fellow racers. In this regard, he the must-have driver for any press officer. Finland has a strong history in Formula 1. One only need think of Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen to prove that the country’s reputation is justified by trophies and statistics.
So what makes Bottas different?
This season the stand out moments thus far would probably include the clashes between Hamilton and Rosberg, Daniel Ricciardo’s imposing season and Jules Bianchi’s triumphant points-scoring effort in Monaco. While, often, results fail to tell the entire story, in Bottas’ case they more than reflect the reliability of his machine and the driver in control of its fate.
Only one engine has let him down thus far this year at the Monte Carlo extravaganza in May. Besides this, he has kept his nose clean and out of trouble to finish every other race in the points. Only Max Chilton can boast a more successful race to retirement career ratio this century. After Williams’ brief fall down the order during the days of Red Bull’s dominant reign, to sit fourth place in the drivers’ standings and third in the constructors’ championship is remarkable. Proof that anything really is possible when the chips begin to fall in their favour.
The team has called him a future champion and they may well be right. A Ricciardo/Bottas/Bianchi battle not only sounds appealing but also a likely occurrence in the coming years.
Bottas has the hallmarks of a typical 1960s racer, the gentlemanly type you would happily talk to without fear of feeling patronised or misunderstood. Much like Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jack Brabham and John Surtees, he is a deceptively competitive driver. He is not the most charismatic or funny, but nor must he be.
Little is known about the man beneath the helmet – a lack of angry and impassioned radio messages largely ensuring this is the case. There is no denying that the 25-year-old is out to win but his approach is altogether more old-school than most.
Even a dominant Bottas was quiet, measured and respectful when he stormed to the 2011 GP2 title with Lotus ART. Not once did the methodical racer retire and he enjoyed the mandatory champagne celebration on seven separate occasions. We may not always notice his consistency amongst the more dramatic moments but it is important to note. After all, the fastest driver can race in the fastest car but without their own reliability and ability – excluding mechanical failures – a championship is unlikely.
Just when and indeed if, Williams will return to title glory is uncertain however the basic necessities are there. With some of the most respected staff members, the famous sporting name and two drivers capable of strong finishes, the team certainly has all the hallmarks to stage an impressive comeback, regardless of how long it may take them.
While Formula 1 prepares to shift focus to Singapore and the three main championship contenders, Bottas’ hunt for that elusive place in history continues. If given the right car, Bottas could be a true great, joining a prestigious list of Finnish drivers before him. I would be willing to bet an awful lot that one day, his time will come.