With a ‘happy head,’ Valtteri Bottas enters F1 season with a new mindset at Mercedes

Valtteri Bottas Hamilton Mercedes
Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
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PARIS — After finishing even further behind his Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton last season, Valtteri Bottas took stock.

If he ever wants to really challenge for the Formula One championship, he realized, he needs a stronger mindset.

“I’ve realized that a lot of that is the mental side of things,” Bottas said. “I’m trying to be mentally at my best, trying to find the right way of approaching every single Grand Prix weekend, (finding) more of the `flow’ state.”

When Nico Rosberg wrestled the F1 title from his then-teammate Hamilton after an intense battle in 2016, he put much of his success down to mental strength. Bottas has not mounted a serious challenge in the same way.

CHASING EIGHT: Lewis Hamilton aiming for another F1 championship while building a bigger platform

Bottas started the past two seasons brightly with victories, only for his challenges to quickly fade as Hamilton imposed his superiority. Frustration got the better of Bottas and chipped away at his composure on race days, leading to some sloppy mistakes.

“I need to be self-honest with everything and try to find a good way and (have a) kind of `happy head’ for every single Grand Prix. That’s the tricky part,” he said. “There’s never been an athlete who’s been completely 100% of their performance capacity in every single event they’ve done. But how to get there more often? That’s the question.”

Hamilton found the answer many years ago and has been on a roll ever since.

After his first F1 title with Mercedes in 2014 – his second overall – Hamilton has won the championship every season except for 2016, when Rosberg beat him in a tense campaign that strained a friendship that went back to their teenage karting days.

After losing the 2015 campaign with three races to go, Rosberg hit back by winning the last three and the first four the next season to show he meant business. At the end of 2016, the German driver put together a run of four wins in five races to withstand Hamilton’s superb comeback, taking an intense season to a final-day decider where he held firm under the Abu Dhabi floodlights.

Bottas has never been able to match Hamilton’s consistency.

Sometimes, “I perform on the level that I want to, but then there are times that for some reason I don’t, and I feel like I (can’t) get 100% out of myself,” the 31-year-old Finn said. “I put too much pressure on myself. There (have) been times that I’ve taken too much pressure from outside.”

When he won the Australian GP in 2019 and the Russian GP last September, Bottas marked the victories with the same angry message over his radio, aiming an expletive at his critics.

But by reacting that way he also showed everyone – including the ice-cool Hamilton – that criticism gnawed away at him.

And he soon gave those critics more fodder. Because after his victory in Sochi, he did not win any of the next seven races. Instead, his form deteriorated with three podiums, two eighth places, a 14th place and a retirement.

He finished 124 points behind Hamilton – considerably worse than in 2019 when he was 87 off the pace – despite there being four fewer races last season.

“I don’t want to leave any `What ifs’ after this year,” Bottas said. “What would be more disappointing is if I look back and realize things that I could have done better, or I should have put more effort.”

Bottas did show more flashes of speed than his Mercedes teammate in preseason testing at Bahrain, leading the second day.

Hamilton is chasing a record eighth title to move ahead of Michael Schumacher and stand alone among F1 greats. Hamilton has won 95 races and 98 pole positions – both F1 records – while Bottas has nine wins and 16 poles.

In what could be his final season with Mercedes, Bottas intends to end Hamilton’s dominance.

“Going into this new year starting from fresh and with a new page, absolutely I believe that I can fight for the title,” Bottas said.

He may never get a better chance.

Meyer Shank Racing wins Petit Le Mans to take final DPi championship in dramatic finale

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Meyer Shank Racing outdueled Wayne Taylor Racing to win the Petit Le Mans and clinch the championship in a thrilling final race for the DPi division.

Tom Blomqvist, who started from the pole position, drove the No. 60 Acura ARX-05 to a 4.369-second victory over Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Action Express Cadillac.

“That was incredible,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports’ Matt Yocum. “I’ve never dug so deep in my life. The adrenaline. I did that for the guys. I was so motivated to win this thing this weekend. But I’ve got to thank everyone on the whole team.”

With co-drivers Oliver Jarvis and Helio Castroneves, Blomqvist helped MSR bookend its season-opening victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona by winning Saturday’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale at Michelin Road Atlanta.

In between those two victories, the No. 60 earned five runner-up finishes to stay in the thick of the championship hunt and trail WTR’s No. 10 Acura by 14 points entering Saturday’s race.

WTR’s Filipe Albuquerque had a lead of more than 10 seconds over Blomqvist with less than 50 minutes remaining in the 10-hour race.

But a Turn 1 crash between the Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillacs brought out a yellow that sent both Acuras into the pits from the top two positions.

Though he entered in second, Blomqvist barely beat Albuquerque out of the pits, and he held the lead for the final 45 minutes.

Blomqvist said he gained the lead because of a shorter fuel fill after he had worked on being efficient in the second-to-last stint.

“The team asked a big job of me with the fuel; I had a big fuel number to hit,” Blomqvist said. “We knew that was probably our only chance. The yellow came at the right time and obviously we had a bit less fuel to fill up, so I was able to jump him and then it was just a matter of going gung-ho and not leaving anything on the line. And obviously, the opposition had to try too hard to make it work. I’m so thankful.”

Albuquerque closed within a few car lengths of Blomqvist with 14 minutes remaining, but he damaged his suspension because of contact with a GT car in Turn 1.

It’s the first prototype championship for Meyer Shank Racing, which also won the 2021 Indy 500 with Castroneves.

“We’ve had in the last four years, three championships for Acura, the Indy 500 win and the Rolex 24, it doesn’t get any better,” team co-owner Mike Shank told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee.

It’s the third consecutive runner-up finish in the points standings for Wayne Taylor Racing, which won the first Daytona Prototype international championship in 2017. The premier category will be rebranded as the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class with the LMDh cars that will establish a bridge to racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kamui Kobayashi finished third in the No. 48 Cadillac of Action Express that also includes Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The podium showing marked Johnson’s last scheduled race in IMSA’s top prototype division. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has raced in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac lineup as the Action Express entry has run the Endurance Cup races.

Johnson said a lack of inventory will preclude him having a 2023 ride in the top category. But he still is hopeful of racing the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro in next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and possibly running in a lower class for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I’d love to be at Le Mans next year,” Johnson told NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch after his final stint Saturday. “I’d love to be at the Rolex 24. The series is going through a shake-up with the reconfiguration of the rules and classes, so I don’t have anything locked down yet, but I’m so thankful for this experience with Action. The support Ally has given us, Mr. Hendrick, Chad Knaus, all of Hendrick Motorsports. It’s been a fun two years, and I certainly hope I’m on the grid again next year.”