Lewis Hamilton led home a Mercedes 1-2 at Sunday’s Grand Prix of Steiermark to complete a dominant weekend for Mercedes.
Okay, it’s far too early to definitively declare Valtteri Bottas as a serious threat to the runaway championship train that is Lewis Hamilton, but you’ve got to admit that a sporting story beginning with several nights of heavy Scandinavian drinking has a certain appeal.
The 2018 season was almost unspeakably brutal for Bottas. When he should’ve been consolidating his serviceable three-win first season he instead allowed his campaign to crumble early and his reputation to take an almighty battering.
Memories of his strong start to the year were quickly washed away in a haze of poor performances born of low confidence that begot a third successive single-season contract and a further downward spiral.
Worse, with highly rated Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon signed up as the Mercedes reserve for 2019, the Finn was widely regarded as a dead man walking, serving only to warm the seat of the German marque’s next generation.
The case against him had been built; all that was needed was the 2019 verdict. But skip ahead to the chequered flag at the Australian Grand Prix and Valtteri Bottas’s defence was as effective as it was succinct: “To whom it may concern, f*** you”.
More than 20 seconds ahead of teammate Hamilton and with a bonus point for fastest lap, it would be no overstatement to say Bottas wiped the floor with his opposition on race day in an untouchable performance of perfectly controlled aggression.
Something changed in the 29-year-old Finn in the three and a half months after the last race of 2018. In Abu Dhabi he was visibly exhausted after a comprehensive pummelling; in Australia, newly bearded, standing taller and with the life in his eyes returned, he exuded confidence.
The contrast between the husk of a promising racing driver late last season into the mean Finnish machine in Melbourne is stark, and though it might sound like the reinforcement of the Finnish driver stereotype, it was in the depths of the Nordic winter that Bottas’s burgeoning hero story began to take shape.
“He came back end of January and said, ‘I’m back’,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said. “Yesterday he said that he got drunk a few times to forget, so it’s a good start!
“He did some rallying and rediscovered the joy of driving. I expect Valtteri to be the stronger this year — the strongest Valtteri we have seen.”
The difference is principally psychological because Bottas is underrated as an emotional driver. He infamously endured a spell of poor form in 2015 as speculation over a Ferrari switch ate away at his psyche, and his bout of bad luck early last year set off a similar spiral of underperformance.
It was therefore not unreasonable to assume that the piling on of pressure from Mercedes to match Hamilton coupled with the presence of Ocon in the garage each weekend would be enough to psychologically cook him — but, as Nico Rosberg did in his triumphant 2016 season, Bottas has taken stock of his mental faculties and changed his racing approach.
“I believe in myself,” he said. “You just need to do the right things for yourself as an athlete, as a driver — what works for you.
“Each race you are aware when you’ve been better and where it has been more difficult, but you try to zero that, be mentally empty for the weekend, and not think about it. I think that’s something I managed to do this weekend.
“I think every year you learn a lot more about yourself … how to prepare for a race, and I think so far it has been the best preparation that I have had.”
The Finn was oozing confidence from the car on Sunday, and even as he cruised towards his first win in more than 14 months the fear of losing a prized result never slowed him — indeed his newfound killer instinct spurred him to ignore team pleas and set the fastest lap of the race.
“How he recovered from being written off … just shows us human potential and how much it is a mind thing,” Wolff enthused. “It’s a bit of a fairytale — don’t let others break you, believe in yourself.”
Of course one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Bottas has been strong early in both his seasons at Mercedes, and he remains pitched against one of the quickest drivers ever to sit in a Formula One car — indeed it was telling that Hamilton remained calm and measured in defeat, satisfied that unexpected floor damage accounted for his race-day deficit.
It takes nothing away from Bottas and his centimetre-perfect drive to concede as much, but there’s no doubting Hamilton has more to give, and that’s when the real test will start.
Just as Rosberg proved in 2016, it’s how you respond to the days Hamilton is operating at his unreachable highs and get back up to fight another round that will define your fortunes in a title fight. Bottas wilted under that same pressure in that last two seasons; now the all-new Valtteri must prove his season-long resilience.
“The confidence you get from the results is a massive help, it boosts you a lot,” he said. “But this is just the beginning of the season, I just need to make sure I keep performing at the level I did this weekend.”
I can’t wait to find out if he can do it.