Having hit the reset button over the winter, Valtteri Bottas plans on making the 2019 Formula 1 season his best one to date. 

The Finn endured a tough 2018 campaign. Entering the year off the back of a solid maiden season with Mercedes - in which he racked up three victories and four pole positions - Bottas had high hopes for a title challenge.

But those aspirations quickly evaporated. Despite edging teammate Lewis Hamilton during the early stages of the season, misfortune denied Bottas the chance to claim early wins in China and Baku, before his campaign completely unravelled. 

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Bottas slipped out of championship contention and was forced to play a supporting role to Hamilton’s title bid, and had what appeared to be certain victory taken away from him in Russia just as he looked to be recovering some form. 

Giving up a victory he deserved in Sochi proved to be one blow too far for Bottas, who struggled to fifth place in the standings with zero wins to his name. In stark contrast, Hamilton went on to secure a fifth drivers’ crown and racked up 11 victories in the process. 

Exasperated and emotionally drained, Bottas disappeared into the winter to reflect on what had gone wrong and try to work out how on earth he could recover. 

Following a much-needed three-month break spent travelling and making his rallying debut back in his native Finland, Bottas returned to the F1 paddock refreshed, rejuvenated (and even sporting a beard) as he heads into 2019 with a new approach both physically and mentally.

“There were many things I learned from last year and I want to do better, be a better version of myself,” Bottas said. “I aim to finish this season with the feeling it was my best year ever and that will bring a good result.

“You always try to learn about yourself and the best way to prepare yourself. I did some different things over the winter. For example I’d never done a rally before and I did one at the end of January and it was pretty cool, good fun. 

“I think driving something completely different but fast is always good, so it was a good exercise. Training-wise, with the new weight rules allowing me to be a bit more relaxed on what I could eat.

“I could make sure I stayed healthy and recovered from all the training. It was the first time in many years I didn’t get ill during the winter months.”

While Bottas was keeping a relatively low profile, the forecasts and predictions for the new season had already begun in full swing, with the likes of Hamilton, Ferrari and Red Bull-Honda dominating the winter headlines. 

There was little mention of Bottas being a title contender as the media whipped up its usual pre-season hype heading to first testing and then Melbourne, though the Finn insists it is not something that bothered him. 

“It’s not a problem for me,” Bottas said. “I don’t care what people talk about and don’t even know what has been said about the other situations in the other teams. 

“I know there is always talking but, for me, I don’t want to waste any single bit of my energy on that and just focus on my own performance this year and on the things that matter. That’s it.”

Pressure mounting on Bottas from within

Bottas, like with any top-level athlete when they underperform, was his own harshest critic after 2018, conceding he feels he is yet to really achieve anything in F1. He has since re-grouped, appears to have a tougher mindset than ever before, and is determined to right the wrongs in what he described as a “fresh start”.

One of Bottas’ biggest areas for improvement has to start with attempting to beat the man next door to him. That is no small feat when said man just so happens to the most successful driver of the current era of the sport. Hamilton is in his prime and appears to be at the peak of his powers, with little sign of slowing down. 

Of course, he is not invincible. Former teammate Nico Rosberg managed to turn the tables on the Briton to beat him to the 2016 world championship, though Hamilton learnt valuable lessons in his only title defeat of the V6 hybrid era and looks to have eradicated any potential weaknesses, becoming stronger than ever before both over one lap and in race trim.

Bottas will be forgiven should he not overcome Hamilton this season, but it is critical for him to ensure he is right up there with his teammate, particularly as Mercedes braces itself for its toughest fight yet against a revitalised Ferrari in its bid to become the first team in F1 history to claim six consecutive double world championships. 

Then there is there additional element of highly-rated Esteban Ocon to consider. The Mercedes junior is vying for the seat alongside Hamilton in 2020 after losing his F1 drive this season, which coincides with Bottas entering the final fixed year of his contract. Add into the equation the pressure from within and Bottas very much needs to deliver.

“In Formula 1 it’s always important to have a good season, there’s always people ready to take your seat if you don’t perform, that’s absolutely normal in this sport and in many other sports,” he acknowledged. 

“You either get the result or you go home, that’s how it goes. For me there are no concerns, I’m focused on my targets and on the targets the team has for this year, in achieving those or being nearby it will be good.”

Amid the prospect of an even closer title fight in 2019, Bottas knows he needs to hit the ground running. 

That means avoiding the sort of costly mistakes that saw him spearing into the Albert Park barriers during Q3 last year, leaving him on the back foot in Melbourne and 15th on the grid (following a gearbox penalty) as Hamilton stormed to pole by nearly a second.

“It’s always better to start the season well, so you don’t feel after the first few races that you need to chase the others,” Bottas explained. 

“Even though I had a bad start of the season in 2018, only scoring a few points here, I had quite a strong beginning of the year and it was possible to be in a good position in the championship and remain for quite a long time in the fight. 

“So it’s not all about the first few races, the same amount of points is available in all 21 races, but in terms of feeling, it would be nice.”

Providing Bottas can recapture the sort of potential he displayed during 2017 and turn in a consistent campaign, he could well emerge from the shadows as a genuine contender. If not, the pressure will mount and the questions surrounding his future continue to ramp up. 

Only time will tell if 2019 proves to be Bottas’ best-ever season, but for certain it is shaping up to be the most important of his entire career.

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