Feature: Valtteri Bottas striving to be F1's top dog in 2019

Motorsport Week begins Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix preparations with a trip to a Melbourne hotel to catch up with Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas. Oh, and four adorable Dalmatian puppies...

A multiple Formula 1 race winner is sat on the floor of a luxurious hotel bar trying to commandeer four Dalmatian puppies for a photo shoot.

It is, perhaps, a more challenging task than piloting a Formula 1 car around the streets of Melbourne’s Albert Park, but for the remainder of the weekend that will be Valtteri Bottas’ mission, as he seeks to bounce back from a 2018 campaign that was disappointing in the extreme.

Bottas entered 2018 with title aspirations and performed strongly early on but fortune did not fall his way, and as the year wore on his form wilted, to the extent that he slumped to a win-less fifth in the standings.

It’s clear that the winter was much-needed for Bottas and he appears a refreshed and rejuvenated figure – though, naturally, the presence of the four most adorable puppies on the planet would put a smile on anyone’s face, even if it hardly helps Bottas' image of trying to be a more forceful challenger in 2019.

“I got one last summer, so now it’s 11 months old,” says Bottas to a small group of written media, having already been dragged away from the puppies after only semi-jokingly asking their handler whether they ship to Europe. Motorsport Week's suggestion to name one 'Spottas' did not receive approval.

“Last year for example if I had a bad race you go home and you sort of forget it immediately with the greeting you get, which is great.

Bottas is chasing his first win since 2017's finale

“I’m really pleased to kind of start a new page, knowing at this point of the year that anything is possible. So that’s kind of a good feeling to have, especially after a year when I didn’t meet my targets, now I know it’s possible again. Most of it is going to be up to me if I make it or not, and that’s a good feeling.”

Bottas’ beard – grown on a holiday and retained when his wife, Emilia, turned out to like it – is the most physically striking difference about the Finn’s appearance, but behind the scenes he has worked hard through the winter to understand where and how he can improve on 2018 – which he himself labelled as the worst season of his career.

“I feel for sure every year you learn more about yourself and how to prepare for a season,” he explains.

“I think I’ve learned to take things a bit more relaxed and once you learn a bit more about yourself you tend to find those things that you want to do that you feel are best for you in terms of preparation, whether it’s hanging out with friends, whether it’s being 24/7 at the gym, finding the balance in your free time and fun stuff, work stuff, finding that balance, I’ve been able to fine tune it a bit and in general feel more relaxed about everything.

“I definitely only have one career and I don’t want to be in the situation that after the season I should have done this or that.

“For sure over the winter something has been different like with my coach again we looked through the travel plan and everything, all the details that we think is going to be best for my performance, like where I am between races, where do I fly, when do I fly. We’ve been trying to plan with the team all my sponsor events a bit more in advance so I can plan my calendar a bit more around it, all the details in terms of travel, logistics, hotels, everything to help my wellbeing and performance. It’s the same thing with the training; we try again to improve from last year. There’s been many details we’ve been trying to improve.”

If Bottas can emerge as a stronger competitor for 2019 then he still has to rely on an external factor – the performance of reigning World Champions Mercedes against the apparently rejuvenated Ferrari squad.

Bottas is entering his third year with Mercedes

The Italian marque flexed its muscles during pre-season testing and heading to Melbourne is regarded in some quarters as title favourite.

“What we see from testing, we think so,” said Bottas when the notion of Mercedes being the underdogs was suggested. “We’re going to be kind of chasing. We’re still quite unsure about how Red Bull will be. We think they’re going to be strong because Honda looks strong now as well and they’ve always had a good car. Over the past two years, the way they’ve been able to improve the car during the year has been pretty rapid, so for sure they’re going to be a threat as well.

“We are definitely in the fight and we know we have a strong team. It’s a massively long season, and always with some regulation changes like this year is going to be a lot about how much you can improve the car, because the cars in Abu Dhabi are going to be so much quicker than this weekend. So whoever is quickest this weekend, it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s close. It matters who improves the most. [And] I think it’s a case of adding pure performance, but even then we know we haven’t unlocked the full potential of the car. It’s just feeling how the car handles and how the balance is, we know there is definitely more to come. Even without any upgrades, just getting the car nicer to drive, better balanced and more stable, there will be performance from that. Then it’s going to be up to adding pure performance and downforce.”

An onboard video released by Formula 1 compared the quickest laps completed in testing by Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, with Bottas accepting Ferrari has “a very stable platform, and we definitely have work to do on that,” but again reiterated his faith in the long-term capability of Mercedes to put in a sustained title fight. After all, they have yet to be beaten to a world championship in the five-year history of Formula 1’s hybrid era.

And if Mercedes does emerge at the head of the pack through the course of the year then could Bottas be top dog? Amid the presence of Lewis Hamilton, Charles Leclerc joining Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari, and Pierre Gasly linking up with Max Verstappen at Red Bull, Bottas has appeared to be almost the forgotten man heading into 2019. Perhaps a little puppy love may well go a long way to proving his critics wrong…