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Formula 1

Bottas is nailing the F1 transition from understudy to mentor

by Rob Hansford
6 min read

Many drivers would struggle to come to terms with the fact they’d no longer be fighting for pole positions, wins and championships after losing their drive at a world championship winning team.

It would be easy for them to spiral on a never-ending whirl of negativity, losing touch with the realities of Formula 1 and ultimately failing to regain any level of competitiveness.

Many wondered how Valtteri Bottas would fare, leaving Mercedes for Alfa Romeo, but in just a few short months – having assumed a leadership role for the very first time – it looks as though his new beginning might just be his best one yet.

Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo F1

In Formula 1, drivers are often silos, intently focused on themselves. They know they need to work with their team-mate and they will share data and information, but it’s usually as little as possible to ensure that they protect their own position and retain what they think might be an advantage.

While at Mercedes, there may have been occasions when Bottas did exactly that – even amid all the great teamwork we heard so much about. He knew he had to find some way to beat Lewis Hamilton and would that happen if he was always 100% open?

But now, at Alfa Romeo, there’s no doubt at all about his approach. He’s not just open, he’s proactively, generously, open.

Previously, Bottas has spent his entire career as the less experienced driver in his team.

Whether it was Felipe Massa at Williams or Lewis Hamilton, Bottas has always been the driver needing to learn and develop.

Valtteri Bottas Felipe Massa Williams F1

Now the tables have turned, but rather than being a closed book, he’s decided to be as open as possible, acting as a mentor to team-mate Zhou Guanyu.

Being the only rookie on the grid means that Zhou is at a disadvantage this season, and although this year’s iteration of cars are completely new to everyone, there’s still a number of elements he will be missing compared to his counterparts.

Bottas recognises this, but rather than let his team-mate fight for survival like he might have done had he been at Mercedes, he’s working closely with Zhou, helping him fast-track his knowledge base.

It’s rare to see this level of support between team-mates and the rookie is acutely aware of how fortunate he is.

“It’s amazing to be honest, because firstly he has so much experience, and every question you ask he is very open,” Zhou said when asked what it’s been like working with the 10-time grand prix winner.

“He will also be with me very honest. So there’s no hide.”

Valtteri Bottas Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo F1

Of course, all racing drivers are self-centred individuals. They have to be, otherwise, they’d never be successful. So it would be naive to believe that Bottas is helping Zhou entirely out of the goodness of his own heart.

There will be a reason for working so closely with Zhou, one of those being the effect it has on the rest of the team – something that is not lost on Alfa Romeo’s team principal, Fred Vasseur.

“In terms of motivation, leadership and so on, he’s doing a very strong job.

“He has helped Zhou a lot during the weekend to give him confidence, to be positive with him.

“He started the debrief with a congratulations to Zhou for Q2, [saying] it’s an amazing result.

“[He said] ‘I was s***ting in my pants on the first quali 10 years ago’, and I think this gave [Zhou] confidence.

“It’s good teamwork and I think in the end Valtteri is able to understand this and it’s really good.”

Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo F1

Providing motivational words in a debrief can easily be for show, but then behind closed doors everything changes – but in this instance that’s not the case.

Bottas has made himself entirely available to Zhou at any time during a race weekend. It’s not only refreshing and unusual to see, but it’s also given Zhou confidence to ask questions no matter how big or small.

The perfect example of that working relationship was right before Sunday’s race.

Most drivers spend their final minutes before a grand prix getting themselves psyched up for the race. It’s time to switch off from everything else going on around them and focus solely on making the perfect start and having a great race.

In Zhou’s case, being a rookie, there was no doubt some trepidation about the best way to start the race. But rather than sitting quietly and anxiously trying to work everything out for himself, he went and approached Bottas on the grid and got some advice that would leave him in good stead.

Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo F1

“Actually, like five minutes before jumping in the car I still asked him some tips about warm-up lap, formation lap,” explained Zhou. ”So yeah, he gave me all the information.

“It’s nice and of course, he’s a very quick driver. One-lap pace is one of the best and, yeah, to be learning from him is plenty.”

Bottas may not have a world championship title to his name, but everyone is fully aware that on his day he is capable of giving Hamilton a run for his money in the same machinery and that brings with it a sense of stature and influence.

If you then couple that with the ‘honest’ approach that Bottas has deployed so far, it then opens everything up, creating many advantages.

It will not only help Zhou gain valuable experience in a short space of time, allowing him to be closer on pace, but it also endears Bottas to the team. In turn, they will want to work with him, they will try harder to build a better car, which then should yield better results.

It will also benefit Bottas and his own well-being. For the last few seasons, he’s been thrashed by his team-mate. He found himself stuck, unable to get the upper hand for any sustained period of time.

Valtteri Bottas Lewis Hamilton Mercedes F1

But now the pressure is off and he can build something around him. He can mould the team to his vision, and it’s already clear he’s thriving, with the smile on his face after the race saying it all.

He’s enjoying himself, he’s reinvigorated, and yet, when speaking to the media after the race, he didn’t make it all about him. He still found time to talk about Zhou.

“To get into the points in his very first race, it’s a big achievement and really a good thing to see. I think he had a good race,” Bottas said.

“He’s a super-nice guy and really willing to learn. When he gets feedback, when he looks at the date, he can really make a good step forward.

“He’s a quick learner and I’m expecting good progress from him during the year.”

Bottas might no longer be fighting at the sharp end of the grid, but with the pressure from being a Mercedes driver now removed, coupled with his new-found leadership style, he could flourish in a way we’ve never seen before.

He might never get a chance again to challenge for a world championship title, but if he continues working in the way he is right now, he might just end up creating a bigger legacy at Alfa Romeo than he’d have ever achieved hanging around as a de facto number two at Mercedes.

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