With just over a fortnight to go before the 2020 Formula 1 season gets underway, the fighting talk has begun. 

Valtteri Bottas says he feels “very confident” and “more complete” as a driver heading into 2020, which he hopes will end with him having defeated Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton en route to his maiden F1 world championship crown. 

Bottas has so far come up short against Hamilton in each of the three seasons they have spent together as teammates at Mercedes, but the Finn insists he is ready to turn the tables on the six-time world champion and has promised to “go all out” in this year’s title race. 

The expectation heading into the 2020 season - which has been heavily-delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the opening 10 rounds to be shelved - is that Mercedes remains the team to beat. 

After its performance in pre-season testing in Barcelona, Mercedes once again looks set to begin the campaign as the clear favourites, ahead of Red Bull and possibly Ferrari too, as it seeks to clinch a historic seventh consecutive world championship double.

Could the 2020 title race prove to be an intra-team fight? It is not beyond the realms of possibility.  

This time around, there is a real sense of unpredictability hovering over the upcoming season which will feature an unprecedented run of races to kickstart the on-track action, with the revised calendar so far comprising eight races - and two triple headers - in just 10 weeks. 

Despite great uncertainty remaining over a number of the long haul flyaway rounds and the expectation that more events will follow the Azerbaijan, Singapore and Japanese Grands Prix in being cancelled, F1 is striving for an 15-18 round season. 

This target will most likely be met by staging double-header events at European venues, some of which were not on the original calendar, adding yet another factor into the already-fascinating equation.  

While Hamilton has claimed every title on offer since 2014 - aside from his narrow defeat to Nico Rosberg in 2016 - he has traditionally made slow starts to recent campaigns by his own high standards. 

Bottas took advantage to be closer in performance to Hamilton last season as the pair shared two wins apiece across the opening four rounds of 2019, with Bottas leading the way in the championship after Baku.

A repeat during a shorter season might just allow him to eek out a small gap over Hamilton before the latter is able to hit his usual stride at the mid-way stage. Even if it did not materialise into anything other than simply being a good start, it would certainly put the reigning world champion under pressure. Throw some reliability misfortune into the mix and Bottas could find himself in a very strong position. 

Bottas’ gains on Hamilton were evident in 2019, particularly in qualifying as they ended the year with five poles each. If he makes further improvements, things could get interesting during a much shorter season than the originally-scheduled 21-round campaign. 

However, consistency has been Bottas’ downfall in the past and he has openly admitted that needs to change if he is to mount a sustained title push this year. 

But Bottas is still improving and said the prolonged break due to the coronavirus crisis has enabled him to reach peak physical fitness and an improved mental state. He also alluded to boasting new additions to his “driving toolbox” after carrying out some experiments with his driving style in Barcelona testing. 

If that can help him find that extra tenth in qualifying to be able to regularly outperform Hamilton on a Saturday, or even more crucially, aid him to close the gap and prove a more potent threat on race day when Hamilton truly excels (particularly when it comes to tyre management and performance), then we could be in for a tantalising showdown between the duo. 

"I really feel that this extra time off, which was unexpected, was only good for me," Bottas told Sky Sports. 

"It's a rare time for a driver that you get so much time off and get to do different things and to really focus on yourself, improving yourself physically and mentally. 

“It's obviously going to be a pretty special season, because it's going to be shorter than the planned amount of races," he added. "So every mistake will cost you much more than previously. 

“It’s all about the consistency and I feel we've been working with the team and my core engineering team in terms of my driving style. I feel I have a couple of new things in my driving style toolbox that I could use. 

“I could feel that in Barcelona testing, in a couple of corners I made good steps and I've been focusing on that during the lockdown. 

“I feel I'm more complete as a driver and also physically, I'm peaking now. Hopefully that can really translate. I'm very confident, mentally in a good place, and I'm going to go all out, no doubt.”

The fact that Bottas is out of contract at the end of the year amid rumours linking Sebastian Vettel and George Russell to his seat, adds yet another interesting dimension into the forthcoming season. 

While Bottas will be desperate to impress the Mercedes hierarchy, he has reiterated time and time again that he will not resort to Rosberg’s tactics of engaging in a psychological battle in his attempts to beat Hamilton. Instead, he would rather focus on fine-tuning the strengths he already possesses, and improving other areas, to capitalise on any chinks in Hamilton’s seemingly impregnable armour. 

Off the back of his strongest campaign yet in F1, Bottas will head into 2020 extremely confident. It marks a stark contrast compared to 12 months before when he had just endured a bruising and winless 2018. 

His mentor, Mikka Hakkinen, who knows a thing or two about winning world titles, believes Bottas is now at the peak of his powers. 

“Valtteri has a great position in Mercedes,” Hakkinen explained on the F1 Nation podcast. “He’s a mega great driver, and I am confident that he’s better than ever. 

“I have an extremely high expectation for him to be world champion this year - and that’s what we’ve been working very hard on for years, [giving him] all the qualities, all the tools for him to get there. He’s been working hard.”

At the fourth attempt, will 2020 be the year Bottas finally steps out of Hamilton’s shadow? 

 

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