Bottas' chance to shine

Formula One: Mercedes' driver has already made an impact this season

Bottas' chance to shine
It is a dream come true for any racer, the chance to compete as a teammate of Lewis Hamilton, one of the greatest drivers of his generation, in a car designed by the team that has dominated Formula One for the last three years. And it looks the dream could last a long time.

When Nico Rosberg surprisingly announced his retirement days after winning the 2016 drivers' championship with Mercedes, the search was on for a replacement. The most successful drivers were all locked into existing contracts, and Mercedes decided the junior drivers in its development program were too inexperienced to promote.

The team was left with no choice but to take a gamble. So Mercedes signed Valtteri Bottas, a 27-year-old Finn who has had nine podium finishes in four years but has not won a race, let alone fought for a championship with the sport's most dominant team.

Toto Wolff, the team's executive director, once managed Bottas when he raced with Williams, his only other team. When news of Rosberg's retirement broke, Bottas called Wolff and told him he was available.

"Valtteri is a no-nonsense guy -- down to earth, straightforward and very focused," Wolff said in a statement, calling Bottas "a great fit for us."

He added, "He has an impressive track record in the junior categories."

Mercedes has won 51 of the 59 Grands Prix since the 2014 switch to hybrid engines. This year brought another change to the cars, one that was expected to see Ferrari (with two former champions) and Red Bull (with two proven race winners) joining Mercedes at the front.

With just a one-year contract, Bottas has one season in which to prove himself before champions like Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso are available for Mercedes to hire away.

At the Australian Grand Prix last Sunday in Melbourne, Bottas showed he had the skills to compete with the best by finishing third, behind Vettel and Hamilton. His performance earned praised from many pundits, including the legendary Niki Lauda.

"I haven't won a race, and that is something I want to face," Bottas said in an interview ahead of the Australian GP. "I want to win my first Grand Prix. That will be my next step. I don't want to make a massive thing about it, because sometimes you can try a bit too hard, and that doesn't help in Formula One."

One-year contracts with options are not new in F1, and Bottas is sanguine about the challenge.

"It is nothing new to me: It has been always year by year," he said. "I have never at the beginning of the year known what I was going to do next year."

He said it was never easy to change teams.

"Williams and Mercedes have done an excellent job making the experience so different," Bottas said jokingly. "Even the steering wheels are so different: different-shaped buttons in different places, with different names. The teams have different meanings for each word. That's been quite a bit of work. As for driving the cars, obviously they behave differently."

Bottas is used to hard work and has been since he started racing karts as a child. Since his early teens, he has approached his racing career with the discipline of a professional athlete, training hard and asking questions. It is the approach that propelled him into F1 and onto the Mercedes team.

Bottas said he spent more time at the Mercedes factory this winter preparing than he has done for "any F1 season so far, trying to learn as much as I can, because F1 is all about details. There is no limit to how deep you can go into the details with every technical aspect: engine, tyres."

For Bottas, part of the winter's work has been learning how to get the most out of a car with a design philosophy new to him. When he reached out to Wolff about the job, Bottas told him how much he wanted to race for Mercedes.

"I made it clear that I wanted to be in this team," he said, "and I wanted to win."

After Melbourne, Mercedes would certainly feel that he has the capacity to fulfil his desire.

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