The helmet weighs seven kilograms. When Valtteri Bottas moves his head from right to left or nods it up and down, you can see his T-shirt absorbing all the sweat that these movements generate, becoming darker by the minute. Forty-five minutes of neck-strengthening training. Forty-five minutes of being subjected to the centrifugal forces of a Formula 1 curve – forces comparable to those that pilots withstand. Formula 1 drivers have a slight build and are not particularly tall. But see them without a shirt on and the amount of training they put in is immediately apparent. Bottas is 1.73 metres (5’8”) tall and weighs 70 kilograms (155 pounds). His neck is thick and muscular, and his triceps wind around his upper arms like steel cable.
A few hours later, a typical February evening in Finland. Windy, wet, -18°C. The region, about 100 kilometres north of Helsinki, is covered in snow for half the year, its lakes resting below thick ice. That a native of this area, where most children take up hockey as a hobby, has made it into Formula 1 seems like a winter fairy tale.
Bottas grew up in Nastola, a municipality so small that even many Finns have never heard of it. And while he now lives in Monaco, he still owns a wooden lakeside cabin back in his hometown. Like the small sauna hut next door, the cabin is painted in a greyish blue with white stripes. Its terrace looks out across the lake and, to its right and left, fir, birch and aspen trees stand tall like guardians of the peace. This lakeside cabin is Bottas’ retreat.
His first race, in Australia, where he would come in third behind Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, is still a good six weeks away. Today, wrapped up warm in a woolly hat, thick down jacket, thermal trousers and dark boots, Bottas stands on his terrace and points at a square hole in the frozen lake – his dad sawed it for him the evening before – and wonders aloud if he’ll take a sauna later.
The announcement that he would be Nico Rosberg’s successor took many motorsport fans by surprise. He had been a very good driver at Williams, no question, but at 28, he was no spring chicken. The fact that he was only given a one-year contract served to further embolden his critics, who called him a stopgap solution, a driver unable to hold a candle to the likes of Hamilton. Since then, however, Bottas has proven his detractors wrong multiple times, including brilliant performances in the Canadian Grand Prix and Russian Grand Prix. So, who is the Finnish underdog who has gone from test driver at Williams to racing driver at Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport?
“I was four years old when my dad first took me to a kart circuit,” explains Bottas while standing on his terrace. He goes on to tell the story of a young boy who instantly fell in love with the noise of engines and the smell of gasoline. “I got into this kart and sensed immediately: This is what I want to do.” But Valtteri was too small back then – his feet didn’t even touch the pedals. “I had to get back out, and was desperately disappointed,” he recalls with the smile of someone who already knows the story has a happy end. “When we got back home, my granddad teased me, saying, ‘If you finish your muesli every morning for a whole year, you’ll be able to reach the pedals by next summer,’ to which I replied: ‘Okay, I promise I will!’”
And so, from that day on, four-year-old Valtteri ate his muesli every morning. The long, cold, dark autumn and winter days passed, and when early summer came and the snow had melted, he was allowed to return to the kart circuit. Little Valtteri climbed into a kart and pressed his foot down on the accelerator. “I’ll never forget how that felt,” he beams. His cheeks are flushed from the cold and his blue eyes twinkle smilingly below his woolly hat as he recalls the first time he felt the power and energy of the kart coursing through his young body, and the speed that pressed him down into his seat. But what he wants to emphasize most of all is how worthwhile all that muesli-eating was. “Because I didn’t actually like muesli back then,” he grins. When Bottas laughs, his angular features and pronounced jawline lose some of their competitive severity. His dimples tell us that, while he may be a cool-headed Finn, Bottas is in all likelihood a grounded, congenial kind of guy.
Some childhood stories can reveal a lot about who a person is, expose an aspect of that person’s character as unchangeable and distinctive as an angular jawline. Valtteri Bottas, who is following in the footsteps of Finnish racing legends Mika Häkkinen and Kimi Räikkönen, learned a very important lesson early on. Because any person who eats something they really don’t like every morning for an entire year must be especially pigheaded, or be so driven by dreams and ambitions that they will stop at nothing to achieve them. “Pigheaded?” asks Bottas once the question has sunk in, breaking the silence as he does so. This is another distinguishing detail. He thinks carefully before he responds. Sometimes he sits in silence for 10, even 20, seconds before answering questions.
Many put this down to his typically Finnish restraint. But anyone who has accompanied him to Finland for a few days will soon notice that this cliché does not apply to all Finns, and will learn to appreciate Valtteri Bottas’ contemplative nature. Not every racing driver answers questions as quickly as they drive a car. Indeed, in verbal terms, many of them are often left by the wayside. “My willpower,” explains Bottas, with no hint of the dimples, “is as hard as iron. I go hungry, I go thirsty if that’s what it takes, and I am deeply driven by my desire to become ever better. So, if by pigheaded you mean highly tenacious and ambitious, then yes, that’s what I am.” His words echo out from the terrace and down to the frozen lake, floating above the hole in the ice that Bottas will soon be lowering himself into. A will of iron. This doesn’t sound like someone content to continue crossing the finish line in second or third place. “I have nothing to lose, I can only win,” he says after a short pause. He seems to like the role of the underdog.
It was Bottas who, in the wake of Nico Rosberg’s surprise retirement announcement, called Mercedes boss Toto Wolff to ask him for Rosberg’s place on the team. Although Bottas has in the past picked up points in a lesser car, and even made it onto the podium, he doesn’t consider these successes real achievements. “To me, the only real achievement out there is winning a title, but I have to win a race first.” This will come soon enough: He clinched the first victory of his career as a Silver Arrow last April in Sochi, Russia.
Valtteri has what it takes to drive at Rosberg’s level.” Niki Lauda, Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport
As a racing driver, Bottas is considered an extremely diligent, inquisitive worker with an organic propensity for speed. He is also known for his strength in wet conditions and talent for calculating risks on the circuit. He worked as a test driver for Williams between 2010 and 2012, and as a racing driver from 2013. By the start of this season, he had picked up 441 World Championship points in 77 races. On the wall of his private gym hangs the Muhammad Ali quote, “Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” According to Niki Lauda, the Mercedes team’s Non-Executive Chairman, “Valtteri has what it takes to drive at Rosberg’s level.” And Rosberg’s level, as we all know, is World Champion level.
But Lauda also knows that Valtteri Bottas is no macho driver, no huge ego made for the big screen. Bottas is at peace with himself, politely asking visitors to remove their shoes before coming into his home. Whenever he finds the time, he likes to get together with old school friends to play NHL hockey on PlayStation.
After finishing school, Bottas completed an apprenticeship as a car mechanic. “It was the logical option,” he explains. He is now sitting in his sauna, pouring water onto the hot stones: It spits and hisses as it hits and the temperature gets hotter and hotter. His former teacher, Ari Siltanen, describes Bottas as a calm, focused pupil. “There were certainly wilder boys in the class, but Valtteri always achieved what he set out to do.”
On the way back home after training, we stop at a roadside restaurant that once sponsored Bottas. The Lähde-Kioski still has his photos hanging on the wall along with cut-out newspaper reports of his first wins. The images are 10, 15, 20 years old. They show a slightly tubby young boy with blond hair sitting in a kart. Bottas the grown-up smiles coyly. “I was carrying a few extra pounds for a while.” The menu at Lähde-Kioski includes a dish named after him: the “Bottas burger.” Price: six euros. Taste: much better than expected. Maybe this is precisely what Bottas’ advantage is. Nobody expects him to run rings around World Champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. But if he does succeed in beating them, it will probably mean winning the race as well.
Bottas puts on his slippers and bathrobe, opens the door of the sauna hut and makes his way down to the lake. He is careful on the icy ground, cautiously putting one foot in front of the other to avoid slipping. Once he reaches the hole in the ice, he doesn’t mess about. There is no shivering, no shouting. He sinks his still-steaming body down into the hole until the water is at chest height. It is clear that Bottas has never been afraid of being thrown into the deep end.