Coming from a part of the world that’s mad about rallying, you’ll forgive my suggestion that Valtteri Bottas’s outing in the Lapland Rally in January did him the power of good.
There’s nothing like getting behind the wheel of a full-house WRC Ford Fiesta for purging the mind of negative thoughts from 2018 – particularly when you set a fastest stage time and finish fifth overall in really tricky white-out conditions.
Apart from restoring his confidence, the thing that impressed me was a willingness to outrun the risk of stuffing such a quick car into the snow banks (as many did) and then potentially being labelled a complete loser after failing to win a single F1 race compared to the 11 secured by his teammate last year.
Fair play to Mercedes for setting aside the usual tiresome corporate correctness by letting their ambassador go public in a Ford. This was what their man needed to do and Mercedes received their dividend last weekend when a new and improved Valtteri turned up to start his proper job.
The Finn’s set jaw must have reminded the Merc management of three years before when Nico Rosberg brought the same steely resilience to his game as a means of recovering from a similar hammering by Hamilton. And we all know what happened then.
There’s a long way to go, of course, and caveats were attached on Sunday thanks to damage to a car Lewis had used to nick pole by 0.112 seconds. But rather than wilt, as most of us would when your very best qualifying lap is aced yet again by a tiny ‘how the hell did he do that?’ margin, Bottas took ownership of this race from the start.
Just as impressive was the way his performance was enhanced by the usual icy calm as he chose to side-step pit wall advice to avoid unnecessary risk by having the confidence to claim the point for fastest lap. And when the job was done for the first time since Abu Dhabi 2017, this Clark Kent in the cockpit was further transformed by a brief blasphemous rebuke that Superman would not have used, never mind giving a metaphorical finger to his doubters.
Despite joining the applause in the Mercedes garage, Esteban Ocon must have felt marginally uncomfortable when he heard the winner’s words for reasons other than their profane nature. Apart from Bottas already being eight points ahead of Hamilton, Esteban’s fixed smile reflected evidence of Valtteri’s determination to have his contract extended to the exclusion of Ocon, George Russell or anyone else with an eye on one of the best seats in the pit lane.
Bottas said he enjoyed driving this race car; he couldn’t get enough of it. As often happens when everything clicks, there was time to be found in certain corners, almost without trying. In effect, Valtteri found it easy to make a start on narrowing the 0.16 second average he was down on Hamilton’s overall pace last year.
Now he leads the championship for the first time in his career. Apparently Bottas is the 60th driver to have done so since the inception of the championship in 1950. It’s a statistic he’ll be forgiven for seeing as irrelevant as his results from 2018, and less important than taming a rally car in the snow.
The performance in the Artic may have been good. But as Valtteri himself admitted with justification on Sunday, this one was the best yet. In his present frame of mind, there’s more to come.