Many drivers would find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that after losing their ride with a world-champion team, they would no longer be fighting for pole positions, wins and championships.
It would be easy for them to spin in an endless whirlpool of negativity, losing touch with the reality of Formula 1 and ultimately failing to regain a level of competitiveness.
Many wondered how Valtteri Bottas would fare leaving Mercedes for Alfa Romeo, but in just a few months – after taking on a leadership role for the first time – it looks like his fresh start could be his best yet.
In Formula 1, drivers are often silos, focused on themselves. They know they need to work with their teammate and will share data and information, but it’s usually as little as possible to ensure they protect their own position and retain what they consider an advantage.
At Mercedes, Bottas would have done just that. He knew he had to find a way to beat Lewis Hamilton and that wasn’t going to happen if he was 100% open. But now, at Alfa Romeo, he has changed his approach.
Previously, Bottas has spent his entire career as a less-experienced driver with his team.
Whether Felipe Massa at Williams or Lewis Hamilton, Bottas was always the driver who had to learn and develop.
Now the tide has turned, but instead of being a closed book, he has chosen to be as open as possible and act as a mentor to teammate Zhou Guanyu.
As the only rookie on the grid, Zhou is at a disadvantage this season and while this year’s iteration of cars is entirely new to everyone, there are still a number of elements he will lack compared to his peers.
Bottas acknowledges this, but instead of letting his teammate fight for survival like he would have at Mercedes, he works closely with Zhou and helps him accelerate his knowledge base.
It’s rare to see this level of support between teammates and the rookie is well aware of how lucky he is.
“It’s amazing, to be honest, because first of all, he has so much experience and every question you ask is very open-ended,” Zhou said when asked what it was like to win the ten-time Grand Prix working together winners.
“He will also be very honest with me. So there is no hiding place.”
Of course, all racers are self-centered individuals. They have to be, otherwise they would never be successful. So it would be naïve to think that Botta’s helping Zhou out of the pure goodness of his heart.
There will be a reason to work so closely with Zhou, one of which is the impact it has on the rest of the team – something Alfa Romeo’s team boss Fred Vasseur is aware of.
“In terms of motivation, leadership and so on, he is doing a very strong job.
“He helped Zhou a lot over the weekend, giving him confidence and dealing with him in a positive way.
“He started the debrief by congratulating Zhou on Q2, [saying] It’s an amazing result.
“[He said] ‘I peed my pants on the first corner 10 years ago’ and I think that happened [Zhou] Trust.
“It’s good teamwork and I think Valtteri can understand that in the end and it’s really good.”
Words of motivation in a debrief can easily be flaunted, but everything changes behind closed doors – but that’s not the case in this case.
Bottas made himself fully available for Zhou at all times during a race weekend. Not only is it refreshing and unusual to look at, but it also gives Zhou the confidence to ask questions, no matter how big or small.
The perfect example of this working relationship was just before Sunday’s race.
Most drivers spend their final minutes before a Grand Prix preparing for the race. It’s time to switch off from everything else around you and just focus on getting the perfect start and a great race.
In Zhou’s case, being a rookie, there were undoubtedly some concerns about how best to start the race. But instead of sitting calm and anxious trying to work things out for himself, he went to see Bottas on the starting line-up and got some advice that would stand him in good stead.
“Actually, about five minutes before I got in the car, I asked him a few more tips about the warm-up lap and formation lap,” Zhou explained. “So yes, he gave me all the information.
“It’s nice and of course he’s a very fast driver. The one lap pace is one of the best and yes learning from it is a lot.”
Bottas may not have a world title but everyone is fully aware that on his day he is capable of battling Hamilton for his money in the same machinery and that brings with it a sense of stature and influence.
If you then couple that with the “honest” approach that Bottas has followed so far, then it opens everything up and creates many advantages.
Not only will it help Zhou gain valuable experience in a short amount of time and get closer to the pace, but it also endears Bottas to the team. In return, they will want to work with him, they will try harder to build a better car, which should then bring better results.
It also benefits Bottas and his own well-being. In recent seasons, he has been beaten up by his teammate. He was stuck and unable to gain the upper hand for any length of time.
But now the pressure is off and he can build something around himself. He can mold the team around his vision and it’s already clear he’s succeeding, with the smile on his face after the race that says it all.
He’s having fun, he’s reinvigorated, and yet when he spoke to the media after the race, he wasn’t making it all about himself. He still found time to talk about Zhou.
“To finish in the points in your very first race is a huge achievement and really nice to see. I think he had a good race,” said Bottas.
“He is a super nice guy and really willing to learn. If he gets feedback when he looks at the date, he can really take a big step forward.
“He’s a fast learner and I expect him to make good progress over the course of the year.”
Bottas may not be fighting at the front of the grid anymore, but with the pressure of being a Mercedes driver now gone, coupled with his newfound leadership style, he could thrive in ways we’ve never seen before.
He may never get another chance to fight for a world title, but if he keeps working the way he’s doing now, he could end up creating a bigger legacy at Alfa Romeo than he ever could have had hanging around here de facto number two at Mercedes.