It's been well publicised what kind of off-season Valtteri Bottas had after his very low-key 2018 campaign. He disappeared, returning back home to his native Finland and forgetting about Formula One over the Christmas period to recharge the physical and mental batteries. He had a sole intention on coming back stronger and faster in 2019. And when the Grand Prix circus unloaded in Melbourne for the opening round of the championship, it looked like the break had helped Valtteri. He took the lead away from his team mate Lewis Hamilton at the start and never looked back, scoring a dominant victory to the tune of 20 seconds.
Many critics were soon hushed, and bookmakers were immediately placing Valtteri at the very top of the list to become this season's Formula One World Champion. And even after taking his second win in the first four races of season in Baku, Azerbaijan - he was still leading Hamilton in the standings. The fight was truly on between the two Silver Arrows, or at least that's what we thought. Hamilton went on to win the next four races, and Bottas allowed the Ferrari's to get in between himself and Lewis, enabling the championship to get away from him through the European season leading up to the summer break. Even when Bottas had the opportunity to take big points out of Lewis' championship lead in Hockenheim, he stuffed it in the wall at the exit of turn one on a very damp track.
It appears the luck and pace isn't with Valtteri again in 2019, but where did it truly go wrong and what can he do to come back stronger in 2020?
A much needed break
Bottas joined the Mercedes squad in 2017 after the shock announcement of Nico Rosberg's retirement from the sport after his championship success in 2016. And he was relatively successful, scoring three wins in Russia, Austria and Abu Dhabi to finish third in the championship and help the Silver Arrows score their fourth consecutive Constructors' championship. But after the whirlwind debut campaign for Mercedes, his 2018 season never got going, and didn't score a single win, eventually finished fifth in the drivers' standings - a colossal 161 points behind his championship winning team-mate Lewis Hamilton.
Bottas retired from the lead of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix from a puncture with just three laps to go, summing up his season perfectly.
A reset was needed. Valtteri has even admitted to slightly falling out of love with the sport at the back end of 2018 due to his on track struggles, but that didn't deter him. He knew that all he needed was a complete disconnect from the sport, and the best place for that was to return back to Nastola, Finland - a small town with a population of just under 15,000 people and the Finn's birthplace. It's fair to say that it's a little less hectic than the street of Monte-Carlo where he also resides, but an idyllic place to get the mind right and focus on his other loves and passions such as spending time with his wife Emilia and his beloved Dalmation dog, karting at the local race track and hiking through the beautiful Scandinavian forests.
But when the Christmas period was over, and 2019 appeared on our horizons, Valtteri was ready to go. He recently told the world about his training regimes what he went through to make sure he was absolutely ready to take on Lewis Hamilton and the other 18 drivers when Formula One arrived in Australia for an all new Formula One season. He was seen training in Lapland with huskies and even testing WRC cars. But when the Grand Prix circus reconvened in Barcelona for pre-season testing, Bottas looked like a changed man. He was sporting a new beard, had gained some weight and looked overall a more aggressive figure. Simply put, he was raring to go.
"To whom it may concern..."
We saw a different Bottas when we arrived in Melbourne back in March - one that was ready to win a World Championship. He won the opening race of the season at a canter, exploiting the dominant Mercedes W10's pace to beat team-mate Lewis Hamilton by 20 seconds. His demeanour on the slow down lap was the most telling of his winter break mentality shift, however. As the team congratulated him over the radio, Valtteri simply replied with "To whom it mat concern, f*** you". A stern message for all his doubters and critics from 2018. Valtteri Bottas 2.0 was born.
Valtteri Bottas was leading the championship after Baku, scoring two wins in the first four races and leading on virtue of scoring more fastest laps than Hamilton.
Hamiltom came back strong though, winning in Bahrain and China to bridge the gap. But in Baku, it was Bottas that killed the demons from 2018 to take a resounding victory, holding off Hamilton for the duration of the race to record an impressive fifth career win. Bottas was in the ascendency, and his new mentality seemed to be doing just the trick. But as we approached Catalunya for the fifth round of the championship, its was Lewis thats struck back in a major way. The Briton would go on to record four straight wins, and get rid of any Bottas rejuvenation. It seems that whatever Valtteri found over the winter, Lewis found more, which is a worrying prospect for any driver.
What does Bottas need to do in 2020?
During the summer break, Bottas was announced to be embarking on a fourth season with the Silver Arrows in 2020, staving off competition for the second seat from understudy Esteban Ocon, who had been waiting in the wings for the past year to get a shot alongside Hamilton for 2020. But it was Valtteri that got the seat, and in all honesty, I can see their logic. Hamilton and Bottas have a very easy going, light hearted and enjoyable relationship as team-mates, and it would be ill-judged for Toto Wolff to break that continuity, especially with a fiery character such as Esteban Ocon. But now Valtteri has been given another lifeline for 2020, what does he have to do to beat Lewis?
Asumming Mercedes got totally equal car treatment, and mechanical failure doesn't play a part in the outcome of results, then there's no doubt that Valtteri Bottas can challenge Hamilton for the 2020 crown, but he must first eliminate the small errors that have cost him points in the three seasons he's had at Mercedes to date. He must eradicate small errors such as the crash he had at Austria this season in practice, coupled with the crash in Hockenheim when on for a sure podium. We must also see a more aggressive Bottas in wheel to wheel combat too, because the Finn appears to be losing too many points when it comes to the crunch at the back end of a race when there's more points up for grabs.
Either way, Valtteri must take everything he had from the first four races of this season and translate it into a 22-race long battle.
For him to win a championship, the likeable Finn might have to become less likeable to do so. And if thats the case, I'm all for it.