Driving through the exit of Yas Marina Circuit having been forced to retire in last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, a disappointed Valtteri Bottas was under no illusions on what the next stage of his career would present.
Still under the safety net of another year on his Williams contract, he received a call from Mercedes boss Toto Wolff a week after the race to discuss the prospect of taking over the vacant seat following the retirement of Nico Rosberg.
After four winless seasons at Williams, the Finn decided to take on the biggest challenge of his career and sign a one-year contract with Mercedes. With just nine podiums from 78 races, his mantelpiece barely shone with accolades, now a vast contrast to his achievements over the past eight months for the Silver Arrow where he is currently third in the drivers’ standings.
Speaking to Sport360° at the Hugo Boss store in Mall of the Emirates ahead of this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Bottas said: “I had high hopes for this amazing year. It was full of opportunities. It was my first year with a new team. I was hoping to fight for the title but Lewis had already won it so it didn’t happen this year.
“I was very proud to win a constructors’ championship, though, and also to get my first two wins and hopefully a third this weekend.”
The Finn has enjoyed an encouraging campaign, clinching a first victory in Russia back in April – after 82 races – and then following it up with another scintillating display to win in Austria.
With 12 podiums – the same as both Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel – he is already relishing the prospect of pushing forward next season and fighting for the title.
“Since karting as a six-year-old, I grew up dreaming of winning. When it happens, it takes some time to realise and I’m just so happy that it happened – especially so early in the season in Russia,” he adds.
“I’ve learned so much from this season. I’ve got a lot of confidence from the podiums and good results. I’ve learned through the setbacks where I was struggling, being a little off the pace.
“I know going into next year I can be a more complete driver. Staying with Mercedes, I know I have the opportunity to fight for the title.”
Standing in the way of Bottas’ world title ambitions in 2018 is team-mate Hamilton – a four-time world champion and one of the greatest drivers of all time.
It will be a tall order for him to topple the dominant Hamilton, but the 28-year-old is not one to crack under pressure based on his performances in the Mercedes car.
“I really think I need to raise my overall game. You always need to find something new about yourself in order to take myself to the next level,” he said. “I’m just going to focus on being the best person I can and try to be more consistent throughout the year. I will need fewer ups and downs, and hopefully keep the results high all the time.”
Bottas has beaten his team-mate six times this season, but over the course of the campaign Hamilton has been more clinical when it comes to securing the chequered flag with nine victories. Both live in Monaco – and have a good relationship off the track despite being driven by the same goal on it.
“He’s a really nice guy and I always knew he’s a great driver. This year I realised he’s a very complete, experienced and fast driver. It’s always a challenge to be quicker than him, but that makes me work harder,” he said.
One of the men central to the Mercedes move to was team principal Wolff. The German was at Williams when they signed the Finn as a test driver in 2010 and, along with Mika Hakkinen, remained part of his management team.
With Wolff now his boss at the German outfit, he no longer plays a key role in the driver’s career off the track – a decision the Bottas is believed to have instigated at the beginning of the season.
“Toto started to help me with my career a long time ago. Now with him as my team boss, it’s a bit of a conflict of interests so he’s not in my management team anymore,” he added.
“He’s a great leader. He’s a great team player. The results speak for themselves with the way Mercedes is being handled and managed.”
Away from the circuit, Bottas spends a lot of time on his bike meandering through the hills across the Italian border to Ventimiglia and Sanremo.
During the off season, Bottas and his wife Emilia – a former Olympic swimmer – fly from Nice to Helsinki, drive an hour north to their lake house in Nastola and relax in the silence of the countryside.
The Finn navigates the trails on his mountain bike to maintain his fitness and cuts holes in the ice in the lake to recover in the winter – when temperatures can drop as low as –30°C.
For a country of only 5.5 million people, Finland has produced more F1 world champions per capita than any other country.
It may have been 10 years since Kimi Raikkonen last sealed a world title in 2007, but the popularity of Formula One is still strong with Bottas and Kimi both part of the top two teams in the sport.
“The interest was peaking when we had world champions with Mika Hakkinen winning in ‘98 and ‘99. When Kimi won the title in 2007 that was the next peak. Everyone loves winners,” he said.
“When you have someone to support from your home country it’s big. Now, when you have Kimi and I in the top two teams, there’s many people following and I can feel the support.”
Bottas arrives in Abu Dhabi this week fresh off the back of a podium in Brazil two weeks ago and having enjoyed his most successful season to date.
He’s brought his bike to the capital to cycle around Yas Marina Circuit and will also be going clay pigeon shooting at Al Forsan.
“It’s always nice to come back. It’s a beautiful race. We always start in the evening and then it gets dark. It’s great for the fans to come. As a track it always makes for good racing. I love it and I’m looking forward to it.”