Valtteri Bottas was mad at himself in Australia for the small error that prevented a much stronger result than his eventual fifth place in the new Williams-Merc.
But for glancing the turn 10 wall as he was chasing Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari – instantly damaging his right-rear wheel rim and puncturing the tyre – he might conceivably have finished second to Nico Rosberg’s dominant Mercedes. As it was his relentless overtaking, first from a compromised grid slot, subsequently in recovering from his pitstop, lit up the race.
Armed with what looks to be a quick car in his sophomore year, this is a big season for the young Finn. His rookie season passed by anonymously only because last year’s Williams was hopelessly uncompetitive for much of the time as the team struggled – and failed – to master blown exhaust aerodynamics.
But he was more often than not faster than Pastor Maldonado, a much more experienced team-mate who for all his inconsistencies can drive a racing car very quickly and has a Grand Prix victory to his name. Wet practice at Montreal last year offered a rare opportunity to transcend the limitations of the machinery – and there Bottas was a stunning third on the grid.
Williams’ 2013 season was squandered trying to get the exhaust blowing to work. As soon as the feature was removed, towards the end of the season, the car became much more competitive and again Bottas responded. He starred particularly at Austin.
He’s composed, quick and hungry. He simplifies his life, avoids anything that might be a distraction from his racing – including saying anything controversial. Mark Gillan was at Williams when Bottas was the team’s Friday driver and said that the similarities in approach, attitude and raw speed made him think back to someone he worked with at McLaren – Mika Hӓkkinen.
If the new FW36 continues to go as well as it looks through the rest of the season there will be plenty more opportunity for Bottas to prove what only a few have seen so far and for that to be the launch pad for a great career. If it happens that way, the error he made in Melbourne will soon stop smarting. But if for some reason it doesn’t, if Melbourne turns out to be the most competitive the car ever was, then he’s going to carry that pain around for a long time.
One afternoon in 2001 I was interviewing Jochen Mass for a feature I was writing about 1976. He was talking about the ’76 Japanese Grand Prix, how at one point he sat himself right on the gearbox of his race-leading team mate James Hunt, but then unsighted by being so close to him didn’t see the water streaming across the track until it was too late and aquaplaned off into retirement.
“I still think back to that even now,” he said. “I think, ‘why did you need to follow him so closely, you idiot? You could have won that race.’” When was the last time he’d thought about it, I asked him. “This morning,” he replied.
Twenty-five years later, the pain of the mistake was still raw. But Jochen had only a half-victory to show for his nine years in F1, so missed opportunities will be felt particularly acutely. Alain Prost probably doesn’t dwell too much on the days when a blown turbo lost him yet another race in his early Renault days – because there was so much success to enjoy subsequently.
I get the feeling that Bottas’ pain will soon fade.