If Valtteri Bottas’ emergence from the off season sporting a new facial complexion and more assertive personality to match weren’t indicative of change, his dominant victory at the season opening Australian Grand Prix confirmed that he’s reinvented himself following the most disappointing campaign of his career.
The newly bearded Finn was untouchable at Melbourne on Sunday, never threatened after passing pole sitter and teammate, Lewis Hamilton, off the grid and into turn one, to claim his fourth win in his most clinical performance since joining Mercedes in 2017.
Entering the season facing speculation that it would be his last with the German manufacturer having endured a winless 2018, it was an emphatic response which will give Mercedes plenty to consider if he can sustain this standard.
Bottas is all too aware that the team’s reserve, Esteban Ocon, is waiting in the wings, though more drives akin to his Albert Park stroll will ensure the latter’s ascension to a race seat won’t be the fait accompli many believed it to be just a few days ago.
Multiple race winning opportunities slipped through Bottas’ grasp last season largely due to circumstances outside of his control –suffering a puncture while leading in the closing stages at Azerbaijan, and more prominently, being made to cede victory to Hamilton at Russia.
The cumulative effects culminated in a psychologically vanquished Finn in the final races, such that it was difficult to envisage him recovering, particularly alongside a teammate who’d just claimed their fifth World Championship.
His remark leading into Melbourne that “I’m going to beat everyone this year”, could be construed as delusional arrogance, yet this bullishness, coupled with walking the talk on Sunday, and his post-race quip directed at his detractors “to whom it may concern, f**k you”, now reflects a defiant confidence.
It comes as little surprise that the 29-year-old described the result as “the best race I’ve had in my life”, and while he didn’t elaborate on the specific changes implemented between Abu Dhabi in November and now, alluded to a greater lifestyle balance and mindset.
“It’s quite difficult to explain what’s been going on… inside of my head and definitely something has changed in terms of the way I feel about things in life in general and in racing, but that’s all in my thoughts”, he said.
Ever since Bottas replaced Nico Rosberg, he’s been viewed as the ideal compliant subordinate to Hamilton following years of acrimony between the pair, thus his performance on Sunday served notice that he’s no longer content with being a placeholder until an Ocon or a Max Verstappen are on the market.
It’s only one race down with 20 to go, so it’d be jumping the gun to say that the Finn is definitively back, much less a title contender, but there’s a lot to like about his new philosophy on and off the track, which will prove formidable should he utilise Melbourne as a template for the rest of the season.
Few drivers have been capable of coming back from the brink, though armed with renewed enthusiasm, Bottas could do worse than draw on his predecessor’s resilience in the face of multiple defeats at his teammate ’s hands to ultimately claim the title. In which case, Mercedes could have a familiarly testing time on its plate…