He may no longer be fighting at the front of the F1 grid for wins and world titles, but Valtteri Bottas is in the happiest place he has been in for a long time.
Having claimed 10 grand prix wins, 20 pole positions and 58 podiums during a five-year stint at Mercedes, Bottas made the switch to Alfa Romeo for the 2022 season after losing his seat to George Russell.
Following a mentally and physically draining spell as Lewis Hamilton’s teammate, Bottas is re-energised and thriving in the less-pressured environment now that he is out of Hamilton’s shadow.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with Crash.net at the Belgian Grand Prix, the Finn opened up about his Mercedes struggles and explained why he is loving life at Alfa Romeo.
“I’m enjoying it a lot,” Bottas said. “It’s no lie, of course I do miss going into a weekend knowing there is a big chance of winning the race.
“Now, realistically, it’s a bit of a long shot. It’s a different mindset.
“For me, this is a project that I jumped into and the rewarding feeling and satisfaction comes from different things. Seeing and feeling the progress.
“For example, fifth place in Imola for us as a team was almost like the feeling of a win. So it’s different, but I am really enjoying it a lot, this different mindset.”
Such was the pressure and weight of expectation that comes with being the teammate of one of the greatest racing drivers in history, Bottas almost walked away from F1 at the end of the 2018 season after falling into what he described as being a “dark place”.
Bottas had struggled to match the performances of Hamilton throughout his first two seasons at Mercedes and found himself being cast into the role of supporting his teammate’s title bids against Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.
Instead of quitting, Bottas regrouped and returned stronger in 2019. He led the championship after taking two wins from the first four races, but it was Hamilton who once again came out on top at the end of the season over the next two years.
Following a difficult 2021, in which Bottas again acted as a dutiful wingman for Hamilton, the Finn was replaced by Russell with Mercedes seeking a driver capable of leading the team when Hamilton retires.
A move into F1’s midfield would mean giving up the chance to battle it out at the front of the grid, but as it turned out, a reset was just what Bottas needed.
“I think it was needed for me,” he explained. “I definitely needed something new, a new environment, new targets, new people around me.
“When I started F1, of course everything was super exciting and you feel like you want to do this forever. Then for sure, in terms of the love for the sport, at some point, I had a bit of a dip.
“But now I feel like it’s definitely back. If you asked me today, how long would I want to drive? I’d say forever. I’m really, really enjoying it.”
Bottas was one of the most criticised drivers on the grid during his time at Mercedes for his failure to provide Hamilton with a stern enough title challenge, but he did not lack ability.
Bottas was regularly able to give Hamilton a run for his money, particularly in qualifying – no mean feat against statistically the greatest F1 qualifier of all time. He scored the same amount of poles as Hamilton in 2019 (five), yet, too often on Sundays, Hamilton was able to find another level Bottas simply couldn’t match.
Asked if he now finds himself caring less what others think, Bottas said: “I think that’s fair to say, yes.
“I really don’t care nowadays what people think of me and I just want to try and make the most out of my life and have fun.”
Bottas has loosened up and is having more fun since leaving the more corporate world of Mercedes. That was evident with the cheeky photo of his bare bum that caused a stir on social media, or in the bucket hats he now regularly wears in the paddock.
“I feel like I’m less in the mould of a typical F1 driver,” he said. “I also feel like my work-life balance is in a pretty good balance.
“So I can just be who I am and have a bit of fun as well.”
While Bottas is able to enjoy himself more, there is still a fine balance to tread and he is determined not to let his performances slip due to being more relaxed.
There can be little accusation of that being the case given that Bottas’ impressive form at the start of the season was key to Alfa Romeo’s current championship position. The Swiss outfit sits sixth in the constructors’ standings, with Bottas responsible for picking up 46 of Alfa Romeo’s 52-point haul.
Results may have tailed off lately but Bottas’ early work means it is highly unlikely that Alfa Romeo will be overhauled in the final six races of the season.
“It is essentially a sport and you need to be in the right headspace and have the right attitude to be fast in the car,” he said. “So far I have felt good in the car this year.
“Of course there’s always things that I could do better and I do take the driving seriously and I really want to maximise to score good points for the team.
“But for me, it has worked well to have a bit of freedom in a way. But when I work, I work hard.”
Bottas, a self-proclaimed coffee aficionado who co-owns a roastery in his native Finland, keeps fuelled on caffeine. His day rarely starts without a flat white and his espresso machine joins him for the European leg of the season.
Coffee-obsessed he may be, even Bottas admits over 10 shots a day is “too much”.
“In the European races, I stay in the motorhome and I have the proper espresso machine,” he said. “So a flat white is normally the first drink in the morning and after that it’s usually espresso.”
Back to on-track matters and Bottas is relishing the opportunity to properly embed himself in Alfa Romeo’s long-term project, which may well include a collaboration with German car giant Audi in the not-too-distant future.
Bottas signed a multi-year deal when he joined Alfa Romeo, having previously been on rolling one-year-contracts at Williams and Mercedes. For the first time in his career, Bottas can enjoy the luxury of having job security.
After some dark days, Bottas is refreshed and has rediscovered his love for F1.
“It’s a new role for me and it almost feels like being more than just the driver of the car, but really digging into the details with the team,” he explained.
“Also now, starting with the consistent updates of the new car for next year, that’s really interesting to be involved and have my opinion. I’m enjoying it, it’s a new thing for me, I’ve never had it before as such.
“Also, for the first time, my teammate is younger than me and I’m the more experienced driver, but that comes quite naturally to me.
“When I put the effort in, I know that it’s going to benefit us and me in the years to come, not just in the next few months,” he continued.
“It’s nice to be able to work for the long-term, instead of the short-term and instead of just trying to prove myself every race, I can just focus on the job and the work with the team.
“For example, during the holidays, for many years I had the August break wondering, ‘do I have a seat next year or not?’ And I could just really disconnect from it really well and have that security.”