Valtteri Bottas is regarded as one of Formula 1’s rising stars. And rightly so; in 2014, in only his second season in the sport, the Finn secured six podiums and finished fourth in the Drivers’ Championship, outperforming his more experienced teammate Felipe Massa.
Bottas’ breakthrough season greatly contributed to the resurgence of the Williams F1 team, which saw them finish third in the Constructors’ Championship; their best result since 2003’s second place.
The 2015 campaign, however, hasn’t quite got off to the start that the clear potential of the Mercedes-powered FW37 would suggest: Bottas failed to take the start of the Australian Grand Prix after injuring his back in qualifying, and he and teammate Massa found their race pace lacking in the searing heat of Malaysia.
I spoke exclusively to the Finn about his rise to Formula 1 and his expectations for the year ahead.
EH: You first got behind the wheel of a kart at the tender age of five, but your interest began a year earlier when you, along with your Dad, discovered a kart race during the summer. Can you tell me about that day and then your first experience in a kart the following year?
VB: Well, that day, I was actually going to Lahti (a town in Finland) with my father and we saw a sign about the go-kart Finnish championship race. We went there just to check it out, none of us was familiar with the sport. When I saw it the first time I thought it was really cool and wanted to get in to try one! My fist time actually trying a go-kart was about a year later, I was about 5-6 years old, and I actually crashed in the first corner of the first lap, as I did not use the brakes, and went off to the barrier. Nobody actually explained to me how it worked and they only said «Off you go»! That day, I learned from my mistake.
EH: In 2008 you won both the Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup and the Formula Renault 2.0 Northern European Cup Championships. That is an enormous achievement, you must have been very proud of your efforts that year. How difficult was it competing in two championships?
VB: It was an important year and difficult too, as [I had] lots of races between two different championships. [But I needed] to get the support to move up to Formula 3. But overall it was good to get as much mileage as possible, the season went really well and I won both championships. This is also how I met and started working with my management (Mika Häkkinen, Didier Coton and Toto Wolff) so it was important to show them good results!
EH: You have had a very impressive season last year with six podiums, including your first Formula 1 podium at the Austrian Grand Prix on an unfamiliar track. Can you put into words how that felt and what thoughts were going through your head on the final lap, knowing you were mere seconds away from claiming your first podium?
VB: Austria was a very special moment, we had been chasing the podium for a long time and the last lap, even though you should never make any plans before crossing the finish line, I started thinking (as there was enough margin at the front and back) how cool it would be to cross the line and make the podium and meet my team when I get back, as the whole team had been working really hard for good results. The podium was very special, to see everyone there, it was a really nice day which I will remember forever.
EH: Last year Formula 1 veteran Felipe Massa joined the Williams team replacing Maldonado. What did you learn from his experience and knowledge of the sport, and how did it feel beating your more accomplished teammate in only your second year?
VB: My experience as a teammate of Felipe has been very good; obviously he is very experienced, he has been in different situations, car set-ups, different conditions, tracks. It has been good to work with him even though, as a racer, my goal is to be quicker than my teammate (whoever that is) and get more points.
EH: For a long time the Williams team appeared to be in racing ‘No Man’s Land’, but 2014 saw a dramatic shift in fortunes for the team. What do you think have been the major contributing factors to this remarkable turnaround for the team?
VB: I think the arrival of [Chief Technical Officer] Pat Symonds made a very big difference since joining the team mid-2013. He has been reallocating people at the factory, bringing new people to the team. Now we have the right people to the right positions and that definitely brought the results back. Another major contributing factor is the switch to Mercedes-Benz power units.
EH: For a country with a relatively small population, Finland has delivered three Formula 1 World Champions (and perhaps soon a fourth). What is it about your home country that sees it produce so many world class drivers in racing and rallying?
VB: First of all Finland is a motorsport country, it is part of our culture – we simply love F1 and rallying and it is true there are quite a few very good drivers from our country. Also, the level of go-karting (at a young age) is very high so this could explain it also. The mentality of Finns is also good for the sport, we can keep focused and don’t stress about things too much which is very important in F1 in my opinion.
EH: What are your first memories of following Formula 1 as a child and which driver/s did you most enjoy watching race?
VB: The first car I remember is the blue and yellow Williams car – my favourite in the beginning. One race that stands out as a race is Mika Häkkinen’s first win in 1997 in Jerez! I remember this race very clearly.
EH: After your most successful Formula 1 year to date in 2014, what are your expectations for 2015?
VB: In 2015 the competition is going to be much closer between the teams.