Formula 1 drivers have to complete their fair share of media activities throughout a season, with some being more tolerable or suitable than others. Recent favourites include Lance Stroll making poutine, Fernando Alonso talking about the future of Virtual Reality, or Carlos Sainz Jr. showing how to pour a perfect pint.

But when Mercedes held an event involving four tiny Dalmatian puppies in the build-up to the Australian Grand Prix, there was only really one man for the job: F1’s resident ‘nice guy’, Valtteri Bottas.

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Bottas spent part of his Tuesday posing for pictures and playing with the puppies, trying to hold them as they stumbled over each other on uncoordinated feet. How adorable. How fitting, that he of all drivers, had been tasked with such an appearance.

Yet by the end of the weekend in Melbourne, Bottas had proved that things have changed. For 2019, as far as the racing goes, it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy.

Bottas’ bid to reinvent himself over the winter in response to his winless 2018 campaign - and the subsequent questions about his future - has been written about to death by now. He went away to Finland, shut off for a while, and came back ready to prove he deserves a place at F1’s top table. Sunday’s demolition of the field justified his approach.

But the clearest change in Bottas’ mentality came on the cool-down lap after taking the chequered flag. Ricardo Musconi, Bottas’ new race engineer for 2019, told his driver it was “payback for last year” after so many near-misses for victory.

With not a shred of jest in his voice, Bottas replied: “To whom it may concern – fuck you.”

It was a release of a feeling that had been brewing for some time. Bottas could feasibly have won three of the first four races of last season, a sequence that may have sent the Finn on a serious title challenge. Instead, he ended the year winless, his form dwindling in the closing races, his confidence in tatters.

The critics were quick to circle. Esteban Ocon’s failure to land a seat on the grid led to serious questions about Bottas’ future, whether he was simply facing a stay of execution through 2019 before being replaced. Surely not capable of being world champion, was he forever resigned to being Lewis Hamilton’s wingman? The butt of any “Valtteri, it’s James” joke or meme the internet could conjure up?

Bottas said after the race that the message was aimed at “quite a long list” of people, adding: “I’m sure they know who they are…” It was a wide net he felt he needed to cast, even if his turn of phrase was spontaneous.

“The message just came. I just wanted to send my best regards, that’s it,” Bottas said.

“I didn’t think about it. I didn’t plan it. It just came.

“Obviously there are many people that support you, that I really appreciate a lot. In sport, there always ups and downs and you can always see the true support quite easily. During the difficult times, there’s always the other part, which is a lot more negative. That’s their weakness, anyway.

“I can’t say the criticism was unfair, because everybody can say whatever they want. But just for the whom it may concern, they should look in the mirror sometimes, and think why they do that.”

The performance alone was a brutal shutdown of his detractors. At no point did he look even slightly at risk of losing in Australia. It was only the eighth race win greater than 20 seconds since the start of 2014, and comfortably the biggest of the four wins Bottas has now recorded in F1.

But the message showed that Bottas wasn’t willing to let that alone do the talking for him: he wanted his critics to know this was a statement. That he did care about what had been said about him. And that it wasn’t true.

We saw in 2016 just how crucial a good run of form to start the year can be, when Nico Rosberg won each of the first four grands prix en route to the title. Rosberg himself had spent the winter prior focusing on every area he could to try and beat Hamilton - something he achieved, albeit with big ramifications for his own reputation and standing.

Would Bottas’ bid for glory lead him down such a destructive path? It’s unlikely. He offered a breath of fresh air when he arrived at Mercedes in 2017, defusing much of the tension which had built up and burst at Brackley throughout the Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry. The atmosphere at the team is very different now, with much that being put down to Bottas’ candour and how well he has worked with Hamilton. His contribution to the success of the past two seasons – including that of his five-time champion teammate – must not be underestimated.

Nevertheless, Bottas wanted to make clear with his message that when he needs to be, he can be as ruthless as anyone out there; that he will not be a pushover in this title fight; and that he’s always had it in him to perform like this.

“The confidence you get from the results is a massive help,” Bottas said. “It boosts you a lot. Even through the difficult times that will come, you always remember the good ones and you get strength from knowing you can do something like today.

“I was obviously one year without a win, so this is absolutely the win I wanted, and it’s going to be a big boost for this year.

“It was the perfect start of the year, very different from last year. I just need to keep it up.”

The addition of a steely, battle-hardened Bottas to the fight for this year’s championship can only be a good thing. Seeing how this approach plays out on-track when he finds himself going wheel-to-wheel with his rivals will be something to follow closely in the coming races - particularly if it is him and Hamilton battling it out.

The old sporting adage that “nice guys finish last” rings true more often than not in Formula 1. And Valtteri Bottas has had enough of being typecast as a nice guy.



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