Valtteri Bottas on Formula One, gravel racing and sporting rivalries

For Valtteri Bottas, time is precious. Last season, the Alfa Romeo driver transcended the decade in Formula One, having been a mainstay on the grid during his years with Williams, Mercedes and now Alfa. As the 2023 season begins, the Finn has an impressive (if often forgotten) 10 wins and 67 podiums under his belt, along with five Constructors’ Championships with Lewis Hamilton and two second places in the Drivers’ Championship.

Before the traffic lights turn green in Bahrain, GQ spoke to Valtteri Bottas about the upcoming season, his passion for gravel riding and how it took him to hit rock bottom to find some balance in all the chaos.

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The new season is about to start. Does it feel like the first day of school?

Absolutely. The machinery is different from year to year, all fresh from the break – without jet lag! It’s exciting to discover the new car and how you will hold up against others. I’m sure if you all ask again in Formula 1 in October or November there will be a different mood!

How do you get back into race mode?

That happens pretty much automatically. We start simulator days from mid-January and it builds up both mentally and physically. I usually take a little time off after the season, but I only had one week where I didn’t do much. Basically, my coach told me I could do whatever I wanted in December, so I had a solid bike month in Australia, biked 2000km on gravel. From January I’ll start doing a bit more of the specific training that you need for Formula 1 – a bit more systematic fitness work, a bit of reaction speed and coordination training.

It sounds like cycling has kept you fit during the off-season!

There is the positive physical effect of cycling, the increase in performance for endurance and cardio, but it’s also really good for the mind. If you compare cycling with running on a treadmill or an indoor bike, you never completely switch off – you are always aware of certain things, so the brain is also working. Sometimes in the season I use it as a recreation, almost like a stress reliever. It’s pretty good for clearing your mind.

What would you consider a successful F1 season this year?

To be better than last year. We want to see progress as a team, we want to see better results and I want to get better results – my goal is to get on the podium at least once this year. We also want to be more consistent. Last year we had a good start but as the season progressed we struggled a bit with reliability. Based on what I’ve seen with this new car so far the quality seems to be an improvement.

Do you think that good balance contributes to successful racing?

In the end, it’s about human performance. The better your headspace, the better your well-being and the better your physical fitness, the better you will perform. I have the feeling that everything is in the best balance. I’m definitely aiming for my best season so far. After testing last week, I went along [girlfriend] tiffany [Cromwell, professional road and gravel cyclist for Canyon-SRAM] to the desert near Dubai and we just biked for a few days with some epic rides in the mountains. Things like that are important, even if it’s two or three days just to disconnect and get away from the F1 world for a while.

How do you stay physically and mentally fit through a hectic season?

What you’ll learn over the years is how important simple things become in your recovery. You need to be able to really listen to your body and try to sleep and eat well. Maintaining your fitness and well-being throughout the season is not easy. You have to find the right balance in your training because it’s so easy to overdo it. I did it myself – eight or nine years ago I managed to put myself in a real overtraining state. I learned a lot from that.

How easy was it to slip into this state?

When you’re an athlete hungry for results and you want to be the best, it’s pretty easy to forget the simple things and take care of yourself. It’s a lot easier to train too much than too little. It’s a combination of certain things: diet, how much you exercise, intensity, how much you sleep. Then you put all the pressure and stress from the outside on top of it. It was a lot harder to get out of—I got into this state in about six months, but coming out fully was a two-year project.

How did this process look like?

First was realizing my fitness level had dropped and it started to affect me mentally – I felt almost miserable and the simple things in life didn’t feel as fun anymore. I had blood tests and fitness tests and you could see that not everything was fine: the whole stress level was high, my fitness level was probably the lowest in my whole career. I also needed outside help. I found a coach and we started a recovery project that started with correcting my diet. I wasn’t eating enough and exercising too much. I had a few months where I wasn’t allowed to do anything physically, but I still raced: I still had to travel, I still had to do the Grand Prix distances and just try to make it. The first winter break finally came and I was actually able to give my body a proper break. Over the next season I still suffered from palpitations at times and felt dizzy, almost panicky, every time I did group interviews. This kind of stuff was all connected and didn’t disappear until a year and a half after the burglary. It was something.

How do you deal with the fine line between success and failure in F1?

When I was young, I took Formula 1 – and life – too seriously. I took it almost personally how I was rated or ranked and let myself be pressured too much. As the years go by you become more confident and care less about what people say. The ideal situation is that you don’t feel any pressure from outside; that the only pressure comes from yourself and that you can control it.

That pressure has to be even stronger in a sport with such big rivalry narratives.

It depends on the personality but you just have to accept the fact that as drivers we can all have dinner together but the next day we will race as hard as we can to beat each other. It’s the same in a team. You need to be able to work well with your teammate, but then when it comes time for qualifying or the race you want to be ahead of them. Respect is the most important thing. If you have respect both ways, then it works, but it’s quite a cutthroat sport because sometimes you’re fighting for your job: your seat next year.

It must be important to have time away from sport. How do you relax and unwind?

Sitting on my bike is the perfect escape from the F1 world. It’s so different. The F1 world is loud and high pressure; Cycling is almost the opposite. It’s usually calm, relaxing, and the physical exertion also produces endorphins, so you tend to think positive things. It’s a great way to clear my head and do something good for my body at the same time. I’m involved in quite a few other things [a gin company and a coffee roastery in Finland] So it’s good to have things that I can take my mind off of. It’s so important to switch off sometimes, to have something other than F1. It’s a mistake I made earlier in my career – you burn at both ends and that doesn’t work in the long run.

Why do you have such a passion for gravel riding and why is Finland such a good place for it?

Gravel allows you to reach places you never thought you could reach. I also explored many new streets in my hometown, although I spent my entire childhood there. It’s pretty fast paced and you can play and slide around a bit more with the bike. It’s more interesting than street racing, at least for me. Finland has nice, fast gravel. There is also great nature – it is beautiful. For FNLD GRVL in June it is almost midsummer so you have almost endless daylight. It is also super green at this time, with clean water, clean air, no pollution. It’s just a good place for that.

What appeals to you about Canyon bikes?

When I’m doing something, I want to have the best equipment, then I can only blame myself. I like technology and they’re really well designed and engineered bikes. It’s also a really cool brand, from the events they support to the range of bikes they have, from road to downhill. They are constantly evolving: it is a truly dynamic and innovative brand that always tries to be at the top of the game.

Does the camaraderie of gravel riding and extreme sports in general excite you?

The first gravel race I ever competed in was the SBT GRVL in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I didn’t really know what to expect – I’d heard it was cool, but you make so many new friends and connections, whether outside or inside the race. There is good respect. It really does feel like everyone is welcome: it doesn’t matter how big or small you are, what your gender or race, it doesn’t matter. All are on the same line as it should be. You can stand on the starting line with professional athletes and compete with the best in the world.

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Grail CF SL7

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