A character-building year
It's been a difficult F1 baptism for Valtteri Bottas who, saddled with an uncompetitive Williams, has struggled to get noticed. So how does he view his rookie season? The Finn talked to Sky Sports Online.
By Mike Wise. Last Updated: 07/11/13 3:20pm
So how does Valtteri Bottas sum up his rookie season?
"Good for learning, in a few words," comes the response from a man of few words - the 24-year-old Finn's reserved, self-contained nature arguably an asset during a season that has seen him forced by necessity to lower expectations. There has been no Lewis Hamilton-style emergence for Bottas; no 'Aww shucks, is this really happening?' grin after scooping up yet another trophy, not that anyone expected such fireworks down at Williams.
But neither were they expecting this damp squib. Race winners in 2012, when Bottas was a fixture during Friday practice sessions, he spoke of his desire for a debut points-finish at the season-opener in Melbourne. Yet it took just two practice sessions in Albert Park for that confidence to evaporate. Talk about a contrast: the demeanours of Valtteri and team-mate Pastor Maldonado were, to say the least, different from the sunny dispositions presented 24 hours earlier for the pre-season photo calls. In fact, it was quite painful to witness: your season's over and it hasn't even begun. Was that the moment of painful realisation?
"More or less," Bottas shrugs. "A bit in the final test, when we started to take a bit more fuel out from the car and make some qualifying-type runs. Then we saw that the speed is not there. But then finally in Melbourne, we really realised we're not where we wanted."
Forced to play catch-up ever since, Bottas says that Williams have always been on the backfoot with the FW35. "The problem is that we haven't been able to develop the car enough since last year. Everyone else has improved a lot since last year and we haven't much really. That's been the problem. During the winter, the development parts they've taken, many of those, especially on the aerodynamic side, have proven to be a bit of a dead end."
That point was emphasised recently in Abu Dhabi, where Williams trialled a rear aero package in anticipation of 2014's rule changes (when Coanda-style exhausts are effectively banned, in theory meaning less downforce) and both drivers actually preferred it to this year's configuration. As well as a lack of grip, Bottas says the car is cursed with inconsistent handling. "It's not as stable as last year's, it's a bit more difficult to drive," he confirms. "But the main thing is the overall grip, the downforce. That's what we're lacking."
Never mind the prospect of podium finishes, the performance shortfall at Williams has left Bottas without a point to his name so far. However, context comes with the consideration that Maldonado, an assured winner in Barcelona last year, has himself managed only one.
Then there are Valtteri's qualifying performances, which are a definite feather in his cap. The car might be a disappointment and reaching Q2 has been a struggle but a 10-7 record against Maldonado, a noted one-lap specialist, is impressive. "It's been quite difficult to prove myself but I think in the end the team knows how well I'm doing - they get all the data and always see how I compare to my team-mate," Bottas asserts.
"I personally feel I'm improving all the time. I think from my side, for the first year it's been good. Of course, I want to get better and I'm sure I will as I get more experienced."
An inkling of Bottas' potential came in Canada when, during a qualifying session held in tricky, drizzly conditions, he qualified an excellent third on the grid. No-one expected him to repeat the performance come race day - particularly when it turned out dry and sunny - but there was no doubt the eventual result, 14th place, was galling.
"I was really hoping to fight for points but on a track like that, where it's quite easy to overtake if you're quicker, it proved impossible to really defend," he concedes. "Everyone else went, we didn't have much chance to fight for the points and there were not many retirements or anything.
"It was a difficult one: a very good feeling and then back to reality on Sunday."
Reality also bit hard for the team's Technical Director Mike Coughlan, who has subsequently fired. For Bottas, 2013 has been "character-building. It's quite tough sometimes, knowing that you've got a good lap but it's not good enough for Q2". Yet he is convinced he'll emerge battle-hardened and cites his 2011 GP3 title-winning season as further proof he has no reason to change his head-down attitude.
"There's been some difficult times in my career before like in GP3 when I had a very difficult beginning of the season," Bottas says. "But I proved it again: that no matter where you are in the Championship, or how bad it's going, there's never no reason to change your approach. My approach has always been, 'Just do your best, work hard and give your maximum, try to get everything out of the car through the weekend practice-by-practice, qualifying and the race. Focus on the weekend always, don't look further away'.
"That's always been my approach and I think I've proved again that's the way to go. It's not worrying about how good or bad the car is, that's not going to help anything. It is what it is; my job is to do the best with the car that I have."
Which is why, according to Bottas, he's competing against Esteban Gutierrez to be F1's most successful rookie with one hand tied behind his back. "They are different cars and Sauber at the moment are ahead of us quite clearly. They're much quicker than us, so I think it's not fair. Of course, it would be nice but..."
...but there's always next year? "It's not easy but I can only say the future will be better and I really think the car next year will be a lot better. So that's why I really would like to stay with Williams, because now I know everyone. They have so many people - so many clever people - and all the facilities, a good wind tunnel and everything. I think the future will be better."
The inference is that Bottas is not guaranteed to be in a FW36, but even when viewed through the present murk the feeling is that he deserves to stay put. When Valtteri was confirmed as a race driver late last year, Sir Frank Williams described him as "quite simply one of the most talented young racing drivers I have come across" and there's been no hint during the intervening period that he's changed his mind.
"That's always nice to hear," Bottas adds. "I've only had positive things so for me it would be natural. I still respect a lot the team because they gave me the opportunity to get to F1, first as a test driver and then as a driver.
"For me now as a one-year race driver, it would be completely natural to continue."