Valtteri Bottas: ‘The goal was to be a world champion …’

Finland has produced more Formula One champions per capita than any other country in the world.

Despite its modest size and population of just 5.5 million, the harsh and varied terrain makes Finland’s roads the perfect breeding ground for elite drivers.

Keke Rosberg, Mika Häkkinen and Kimi Räikkönen have won four F1 titles between them to make the nation the joint fifth most successful in history.

And it’s not just F1 where Finland punches above its weight — in rallying it sits second only to France in the all-time world champions list.

So what is it about the country’s drivers that turns them into “Flying Finns” behind the wheel?

“I think for sure, part of that comes from being Finnish and the way we are,” Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas tells CNN in Nastola, his home city.

“Our mentality is really good for the sport, we don’t tend to give up and being in difficult situations under pressure, which is good in this sport.

“We don’t mind being alone because in the end in that car you are quite alone and that’s how it feels.”

The serene natural surroundings of Lake Iso-Kukkanen and slow-paced life in Nastola feel a world away from the frenetic Formula One paddock.

As much as Bottas thrives under the pressure that comes when he pulls on his helmet, he admits to being a different person when he’s home.

The 29-year-old still has many school friends and family members living in “peaceful” Nastola, the perfect place for him to unwind.

Childhood memories of playing by the lakes and in the woods are still treasured.

“I’m always very proud of where I come from,” he says. “The more I’ve been traveling the world and seeing different places, the more I appreciate where I come from.

“The nature, how clean it is here, you can drink such pure water from the tap anywhere in this country — all these kind of small things you start to appreciate and it’s quite a unique place.

“I think on a race weekend, I’m definitely a bit more closed. There’s so many things that you think through the week and you need to stay concentrated and constantly processing.

“You are there as an athlete to try and get 100% out of yourself, to give yourself everything you have every week. So while I’m here, at my lake house having beers with my friends, I’m quite different.”

World championship ‘dream’

For Bottas, much has changed in the two years since CNN’s The Circuit last went to visit his hometown.

No longer the inexperienced Formula One rookie cutting his teeth driving for Williams, Bottas now races in one of the best cars on the grid alongside arguably the most talented driver of his generation.

But Bottas very much plays second fiddle to Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton, who now has one eye on a fifth world championship title.

“I wouldn’t change my position to anywhere else now,” he says when asked about being top dog on another team.

“I’m happy where I am because Lewis being Lewis, quick driver, he keeps me very motivated. I want to be ahead of him, me as a driver, you can always learn from another driver.

“The goal was to be a world champion and it still is. So I’m still chasing my dreams, trying to reach the goal I said to myself and pretty much all the people around when I was six.

“I’m still realistically on that path, there’s still a possibility for that in the future so I think I’ve done quite well so far but of course, I want to win my goal.”

Until the 2017 Russian Grand Prix, Bottas held the unwanted record of being the driver to have accumulated the most points without ever winning a race.

Victories in Austria and Abu Dhabi followed later that season but he is without a Grand Prix victory since then.

Bottas ended 2017 in third — behind only Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel — with 305 points, far and away his best performance in Formula One.

‘Outperformed everybody’

Those who know him best believe his confidence in his own ability to one day win a world title is not misplaced.

One summer’s day in 2008, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff recalls seeing Bottas in a car for the first time and, even as a youngster, being streets ahead of his rivals.

“I knew about him before,” Wolff told CNN. “I knew there was a Finnish kid that was doing very well in a private team that was fighting with the top teams in Formula Renault.

“Then he was promoted into what used to be the frontrunner team and he just outperformed everybody. I visited him on the Nurburgring, he had pole position at the Formula Renault Cup.

“There was about 40-50 starters, so it was massive, and he was just coming down on the back straight towards the chicane and there was nobody [close] behind him … on lap 1!”

‘Polishing a diamond’

Wolff is keen to stress that Bottas has only been in the Mercedes car for two years, a third of the time of Hamilton, and believes his career trajectory is pointing in the direction of one day winning a championship.

That the Austrian says there was “never any doubt” in offering a contract extension for next season speaks volumes of the faith he has in his driver.

“He has it in him that he can, with the right car, win a driver world championship,” Wolff says.

“This year maybe less chance because he’s lacking some points, but next year is all points down to zero and if we are able to have a competitive car, he will be in the hunt, for sure.”

Bottas has received his fair share of criticism, with many perceiving his quiet, introverted demeanor as the lack of fighting spirit which has resulted in him winning just three Grands Prix.

But two-time world champion Häkkinen, his compatriot and idol growing up, offers some perspective on the numbers.

“I’m very confident in that and I have to tell you a story about myself,” he explains. “It took me seven years before I won my first Grand Prix.

“Eventually when you have these qualities what we’ve spoken earlier in the first place — talent, raw speed — it’s like polishing a diamond and one day it’s shining and it’s ready and then you’ll be world champion.”

Humble beginnings

Bottas got his first taste of high-octane racing on a small karting track a short distance from his hometown.

His parents supported him in his fledgling career, taking him every day after school. Just five years old, the Finn’s love of speed was evident in the first lap he ever raced.

“I had a massive shunt because I didn’t know that you had to brake,” Bottas laughs. “I think someone had explained to me, but I was just excited to get in the car.

“I could do without crashing until here,” he says, gesturing to track’s first sharp corner. “Then I learned that you had to brake, and so the next lap was fine.”

Now, more than two decades after getting behind the wheel for the first time, Bottas has come full circle and now stands in the same position previously occupied by his idols.

“It’s a bit weird to think that way because for me when I was a kid doing go-karts, Formula One stars were like massive heroes,” he recalls.

“And for me now thinking that some kids here on the local track are fans of mine and thinking the same, it is strange to think.

“But I am really happy if I can motivate someone to follow their dreams and, you know, set themselves goals and targets in their career and in their life. So I’m really really happy for that.”