After a morning spiralling in and out of sponsor commitments, he arrives on set at the Esquire cover shoot looking the model of composure. Valtteri Bottas greets everyone in the suite of the Mandarin Oriental with a handshake and a gaze so focused that it is a crystalline window into his being—so clear that you must imagine what goes on in a mind so still.
The 28-year-old Finn cuts a dash as he slips on designer threads from Hugo Boss and patiently poses for photographs. He gives a short self-deprecating laugh when the crew show him the shots. A modest kind of humour is not what you'd expect of a Formula One driver, but beneath the diffident exterior, you glimpse in those eyes a purity of intent that cannot be denied.
You could say he needs it, but equally, it's also what has landed him a drive with Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One, the dominant team on the grid today that most recently added a hat-trick of Constructors’ and Drivers’ World Championships to an expanding trophy cabinet.
Just who is Valtteri Bottas? Until you speak with him, his story would be unremarkable. It follows a familiar narrative arc: karting young (from age 6), making his way through the FIA-sanctioned formula series of races at home and in Europe, hopefully catching the eye of the faster, better, talent-spotting team principals. Here’s the CV:
Competed for seven years in Finland's National Karting Squad and graduated to single-seater racing in 2007. Won both the 2008 Formula Renault Eurocup and the 2008 Formula Renault North European Cup, winning 17 races out of 28 starts. (That’s pretty good.) Joined the Formula 3 Euroseries in 2009, (a favourite of previous future Formula One stars), won two Masters of Formula 3 titles. Joined the GP3 series in 2010, clinched the championship title on his first attempt, during the penultimate race of the season. Talent-spotted by Sir Frank Williams, veteran F1 team principal. Signed as a test driver for the Williams Formula One team and as a reserve driver in 2012. Raced full-time for the 2013 season alongside a highly experienced teammate, Pastor Maldonado.
He stayed at Williams for three years where he scored nine podiums. Williams not being the team it once was, Bottas distinguished himself by doing so. He would start 77 races for one of F1’s stalwart teams, but his maiden victory proved elusive. When a vacancy appeared at Mercedes after Nico Rosberg unexpectedly announced his retirement days after clinching the driver’s title, Bottas called up his former mentor and Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One boss Toto Wolff to offer himself for the job.
“VALTTERI IS A NO-NONSENSE GUY, DOWN TO EARTH, STRAIGHTFORWARD AND VERY FOCUSED,” SAID WOLFF IN A STATEMENT SHORTLY AFTER SIGNING BOTTAS TO THE TEAM.
Wolff would know his kind of resilience, making him the perfect candidate to take over the defending World Champion’s seat. Pressure? Bottas explains it like this to Esquire:
"Obviously, they were very big boots to fill but I have to say, at no point did I feel like I was under pressure. It would have been a position to take in a lot of pressure if I gathered all the expectations from the team and everyone else who had expectations on me but I never had that feeling because of the support I got from the team when I first joined.
“I realised it on the very first day, I thought to myself, ‘Okay, we are in this together.’ They’re doing everything they can to help me and it’s a massive team; it’s not just me. So, thinking about it like that has been helping me a lot."
More interesting is Bottas’ ostensibly ordinary provenance. Hailing from the town of Nastola (population: 15,000) in southern Finland, he describes his family as being middle-class.
Statistics will show that Finland produces the highest number of world motor racing champions per capita than in any other country. It's competitive in a small country with wide open spaces covered for months in snow, where skilful driving is part of daily life. And, like Bottas, it’s not uncommon for Finns to take up karting as kids.
Still, some take to it more readily than others. "The first time I got in a kart, I just fell in love with it—the speed and the sound—I was really excited about it," he says, eyes lighting up. Bottas' parents separated when he was 10, but remained united to fuel his need for speed.
"Of course my parents questioned me if it was what I really wanted to do,” he says. “Obviously it was very time consuming and financially, it's (racing) not easy as a hobby or as a sport, but it was a step-by-step process.”
They bought him a used go-kart and he recalls when they would spend idyllic weekends with travelling around Finland and Europe. “I loved it then. Sometimes we would go in the camping trailer and we would go on a racing weekend. It was very relaxed but then the older you get, the more competitive and intense it gets. I think my parents could see that I was really enjoying every moment of it and that's why they gave me all the support they could."
His father ran a cleaning service company and took the opportunity to mention to clients, and their clients, that his son was a budding racer. They supported Bottas by supplying tyres and parts and eventually financed him when it became clear he was in it just because.
Bottas points proudly to the firm’s logo on the sleeve of his racing overalls: a local company, Wihuri, is still a sponsor after almost two decades. "I think maybe I was about nine years old when they first helped me and now they're still with me. Without all those local companies helping me, there would have been no chance."
And here are more remarkable details: like all kids, he had his racing heroes. But nobody taught him how to drive. Nor is his velocity genetic: no one in the family has ever been a racer.
“It was just me and the stopwatch. I remember so many times of it being just me and my dad at the go-kart track where he’s taking the lap times. I was trying different things on how to go quicker from a very young age.”
He found god and the devil in all small things:
“IT WAS VERY INTERESTING BECAUSE DRIVING IS ALL ABOUT THE LITTLE DETAILS AND THERE WERE SO MANY THINGS THAT AFFECTED HOW I COULD MAKE THE LAP TIMES BETTER.”
The Finns have a word for this: sisu. It has no direct English translation, but Finlandia University describes it as having a “mystical, almost magical meaning” and roughly translates to English as “strength of will, determination, perseverance and acting rationally in the face of adversity.” It’s a unique concept for Europeans and others who are wedded to the enlightenment tradition, because it bears myticism, magic and rationality in the same breath.
Bottas’ story carries a whole lot of sisu with it: where is the limit?
He looks for it when he drives, in his machine, in himself, in the man-machine interface. Can racing faster and faster take him where he wants to go? Where does he want to go? What is the speed of enlightenment?
Bottas: “It was all about the speed when I was a kid, of course. I was going very quick then, but the problem is that you get used to going really fast and then you want more and more and more. Even now, when we are going 350KPH, we wish that we could go quicker and you get used to it. For me, the excitement that I get during racing and competing against the other person and trying to be the best and all the fine details that come with driving is what I love most about it.”
In his debut race for Mercedes at the Australian Grand Prix this year, he placed third, prompting Mercedes chief and three-time Formula One World Champion, Niki Lauda to mention in an interview with Sky Sports F1 that Nico Rosberg could not have done a better job. That’s a fact – Bottas managed to qualify marginally closer to Hamilton at the Melbourne Albert Park circuit than Rosberg had done in the previous year.
But Rosberg isn't the only World Champion Bottas has to measure up against. That would, of course be Hamilton, who had a testy relationship with Rosberg. Bottas is realistic, professional and sanguine – sisu – about his prospects:
"Well, I have to say, it's not easy because he’s really quick. He’s obviously very experienced, he’s been with the team for a longer time and he’s got three World Championships. It’s not easy to try and be ahead of him, but sometimes I manage to do so. I think with this being my first year with the team, they really appreciate that. But as a guy to work with, he has been very good. He’s a nice guy; I didn’t know him that well when I joined but now I got to know him and I really respect him as a driver and as a person."
“The chemistry and dynamic between Valtteri and Lewis work and are what we need to take the fight to our competitors,” tweeted Wolff on the team’s account.
"Honestly, it has to be the team spirit,” adds Bottas. “If you have good chemistry between teammates, you can push the team forward. It needs to be both ways and quick teammates are always good, because it can possibly make you learn from him or to try even harder."
In Bahrain this year, Bottas secured his first F1 pole position, outqualifying Hamilton by 0.02 seconds. Mercedes’ closest rival, the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel, came in a distant third, half-a-second behind the two Mercedes.
Then in Russia, he achieved his first F1 win at the Sochi Autodrom. "It was amazing! I could only dream of it when I was a kid. I remember watching races on TV and I’d watch the winner and I’d think to myself, ‘Wow! He won the race!’ And then being there yourself is a little bit surreal. It took a few days to acknowledge it. It’s crazy, but it is what it is." Bottas says, sisu-ly.
The winner Bottas used to watch on TV was another famous Finn, who took a longer time to score his first Formula One grand prix win (six seasons to Bottas’ four) — Mika Häkkinen, one of Bottas’ heroes when he was growing up and who is now his co-manager.
Häkkinen went on to become a double World Champion, so Bottas has time on his side.
Bottas’ name may yet go up there among the Aaltonens, Vatanens and Häkkinens, et al, but he’s focused on his own velocity.
"You know how you use the pedals, the throttles, the brakes, the gear… Then you think about what kind of lines you take, how is your mind set up, how focused you are. Then it’s all about controlling the car, controlling the grip and trying to make the most out of the laws of physics—that’s how it goes.
“I could speak for many hours on how to drive quickly with different things." he says, plainly happy.
“Honestly, I can't remember the last time I cried, so maybe there's something wrong with me."
This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Malaysia's November 2017 edition.