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.”
After 19 races over eight gruelling months, Formula One heads to the Middle East for the concluding grand prix of the season.
Abu Dhabi‘s Yas Marina Circuit is the stage for the final round – and here, Press Association Sport looks at five key talking points ahead of Sunday’s race.
HAMILTON GIVEN HERO’S WELCOME
The 1,000-strong staff at the team’s Northamptonshire headquarters in Brackley and Brixworth – who are all at least £10,000 richer following the team’s bonuses for clinching another constructors’ championship – provided Hamilton with a guard of honour to celebrate him seeing off Sebastian Vettel to the title with three rounds to spare.
“This a very emotional day, and I was not expecting this,” Hamilton said. “It is something that I will never forget.”
The British driver will bid to see out his championship-winning campaign with his 10th victory of the year before heading to France for the prize-giving gala which will be staged at the Palace of Versailles next Friday.
CAN VETTEL CLOSE OUT RUNNER-UP SPOT?
With both the team and driver championships already settled, there is largely only pride to play for in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.
For Vettel however, who led this year’s championship battle until the 13th round of the season, the German will be hoping to save face by securing second place in the standings.
Following his win at the most recent Brazilian Grand Prix – his first since July – Vettel moved 23 points clear of Valtteri Bottas meaning he needs to finish only ninth on Sunday to guarantee the runner-up spot.
Bottas has won two races this year, compared with team-mate Hamilton’s nine, and the Mercedes driver admitted he wanted a greater haul of victories following his move from Williams.
“It has been a tough year,” Bottas said. “I was definitely hoping for more.”
KUBICA GIVEN ANOTHER CHANCE TO IMPRESS
Robert Kubica will be handed his third run-out with Williams at next week’s tyre test in Abu Dhabi.
The British team are still to reveal their driver line-up for 2018, with Kubica in the frame alongside Daniil Kvyat, Pascal Wehrlein and Britain’s Paul di Resta.
Should Williams call on Kubica to partner Canadian Lance Stroll then it will cap one of the most remarkable comebacks in sporting history following the Pole’s horrific rally crash back in 2011.
Indeed it was this very race, seven years ago, in which Kubica last turned a wheel of a Formula One racing car in anger.
Williams, who will finish a lowly fifth in this year’s constructors’ championship, are due to make an announcement after the season finale.
ALONSO IN BAHRAIN AHEAD OF LE MANS SHOT
Double world champion Fernando Alonso has ramped up his preparations for January’s Daytona 24 Hours race after competing in two tests ahead of the sportscar event.
Alonso, 36, completed more than 100 laps at a World Endurance Champion rookie test in Bahrain last Sunday before getting acquainted to the LMP2 Ligier at a further test in Aragon on Tuesday.
“Obviously, we are on a really tight schedule between now and Daytona, but it was nice to jump in the car for the first time,” Alonso said.
“I’m happy with everything. The car felt great and the team were fantastic.”
Alonso’s sportscar debut at Daytona will come ahead of his likely Le Mans debut next summer as he continues his pursuit of motor racing’s Triple Crown.
BOY GEORGE HANDED FORCE INDIA SLOT
George Russell, the streaky teenager from King’s Lynn, Norfolk, is to be given another shot by Force India in opening practice on Friday.
The 19-year-old, who made his grand prix weekend debut in Brazil where he finished a commendable 12th, will take part in the first session in place of Esteban Ocon.
Meanwhile, Lando Norris, the soon-to-be McLaren reserve driver, will make his Formula Two debut this weekend for Campos Racing.
Englishman Norris, 18, was due to take part in a tyre test for McLaren in Brazil last week, but the test was cancelled amid security fears.
Sebastian Vettel bounced back from his world championship disappointment in fine style on Sunday when he won a sunlit Brazilian Grand Prix for Ferrari.
The four-time champion took the lead at the start and, apart from a period after his pit-stop, controlled an incident-packed race to finish 2.8 seconds ahead of pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes.
Another Finn Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 champion, resisted late challenges from newly-crowned four-time champion Lewis Hamilton to hang on to third ahead of the second Mercedes driver, who had started the race from the pit lane.
Dutchman Max Verstappen came home fifth ahead of his Red Bull team-mate Australian Daniel Ricciardo and retirement-bound local hero Felipe Massa, a rousing seventh for Williams in his final home city race.
The Brazilian emerged triumphant in his own private scrap to the line with two-time champion Fernando Alonso of McLaren Honda, who finished eighth.
Mexican Sergio Perez finished ninth for Force India and German Nico Hulkenberg 10th for Renault.