New tyres, new team, new champion?

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New tyres, new team, new champion?

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Finland has three drivers who have won F1 world titles. What are the chances of Valtteri Bottas making it four?

If you want to win, get a Finn – that’s the word from Finland’s most patriotic Formula One fans, thinking no doubt of the glory days of former champions Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen.

Or, in an alternative version: “to finish first, first you have to be Finnish.”

This year, there’s another Finn who stands an entirely realistic chance of adding to his small country’s list of four Formula One titles – a man who not so long ago was wondering whether he might seal his elusive first Grand Prix win.

He’s still waiting for that, as it happens. But now it has become a question of when it happens rather than if. Valtteri Bottas has been given the unexpected chance of a lifetime at Mercedes Grand Prix, after Nico Rosberg dramatically decided to retire straight after sealing last year’s world championship.

From the outset, Bottas emerged as one of the leading contenders for the coveted Mercedes drive and, as time went on, the more sense it made to everyone. The 27-year-old is one of the few drivers with exactly the right blend of youth and experience: old enough not to be too susceptible to pressure, yet young enough to have genuine potential for the future.

He’s got just a one-year contract but Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff says that Bottas’s destiny is in his own hands: do a good enough job against the super-quick Lewis Hamilton, is the implication, and you won’t be going anywhere in future. Even if Hamilton does…

Bottas’s biggest qualification for the job is actually his passport. Or rather, the quality of sisu that goes with it. Sisu is an almost impossible word to translate, but it describes bravery and implacable stoicism in the face of adversity: a Finnish national trait.

It means that Bottas isn’t prone to outbursts or emotions. And it means that he gets along with more or less everyone. In the pressure-cooker environment at the very top of Formula One, that’s an essential attribute many younger drivers do not have.

Yes, as a Mercedes junior driver there was certainly a case for giving Pascal Wehrlein Rosberg’s old job. Yet aged just 22, that drive could just as easily have ruined the young German’s F1 career as boosted it.

The irony, of course, is that this year in Formula One might just be the one where experience counts least. What young drivers tend to struggle with is not raw speed – if they get to Formula One in the first place, they’re generally quick enough to be there – but instead knowing exactly how to get the best out of the cars and the tyres.

In particular, right up until the end of last year, it was often a question of keeping those tyres within the ideal operating window. Now, though, the philosophy has changed, with Pirelli being asked to reduce deliberate degradation – contrary to previous years – which levels the playing field.

On the one hand, Bottas might think that change is to his disadvantage as he comes to a new team, because it cancels out the benefit of the knowledge he has built up over the years. On the other hand, it allows him to compete on equal terms with Hamilton: who also doesn’t yet know how to get the best out of Pirelli’s 2017 tyres either.

Mercedes management has never imposed a number one and number two rule within the team. And they’re not about to start now, which is why Bottas is already aiming for the world title in his first year.

“Being in this kind of team, you can’t target anything less,” says the Finn. “It’s my only dream in Formula One, so I’m ready to do everything I can.”

We’ll find out what that is on March 26 when the Australian Grand Prix gets underway.

 

Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, F1, Tests, Barcelona, Valtteri Bottas ; Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, F1, Tests, Barcelona, Valtteri Bottas;

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