Valtteri Bottas is thriving at Alfa Romeo -- but he almost quit F1 altogether in 2018

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At the end of his second season as Lewis Hamilton's teammate at Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas was ready to quit Formula One. His dream opportunity of driving the fastest car on the grid against the sport's best driver had quickly turned into a nightmare and by the end of 2018 he was close to calling time on his career.

At the Russian Grand Prix in September that year, Bottas had been told by his Mercedes team to gift a near-certain victory to Hamilton. Bottas was leading the race on a circuit where he always seemed to have an advantage over Hamilton, when the now infamous "Valtteri, it's James" radio message was sent by Mercedes' chief strategist James Vowles to tell him to let his teammate past.

The view from the pit wall was that Hamilton had signs of damage on his front tyres and the best way to ensure a one-two victory ahead of Sebastian Vettel in third place was to swap the drivers so that Bottas could defend from the Ferrari. What's more, a series of underwhelming results earlier in the year meant Bottas was already out of title contention, while Vettel was still a threat to Hamilton's championship campaign. Bottas complied with the order but looked distraught when he joined Hamilton for the podium celebrations after the race.

Bottas finished the 2018 season 161 points adrift of Hamilton and was in fifth place in the standings behind both Ferrari drivers as well as Red Bull's Max Verstappen. Once the racing had finished for the year, he went back to his native Finland and in the run up to New Year seriously calling Mercedes boss Toto Wolff to say he was quitting the sport.

"I never physically held the phone in my hand with Toto's number on it, so I didn't get that close, but still it was a tough New Year. I couldn't decide," he told ESPN in a recent interview.

"With the headspace that I got myself into -- not accepting to be in a support role and all these kind of things -- it was quite difficult to deal with."

Since the age of six when he first drove a go-kart, Bottas had been pursuing a career in F1 with the dream of winning races and, ultimately, challenging for the drivers' championship. When he joined Mercedes in 2017 as Nico Rosberg's replacement it appeared as though that goal might finally be within reach, but in the space of two years he put so much pressure on himself to achieve it that he was no longer enjoying the sport.

"I was angry at myself, because obviously if I had more points than Lewis by the half point of the season I wouldn't have been in that situation. And then I was angry to the sport, to the team, I just didn't enjoy F1 at that time at all. That's just how it goes sometimes.

"In a nutshell I was maybe a bit too harsh to myself in the first few years with the team because I wanted to win immediately and it was so hard to accept that I was not able to do that. That put quite a lot of pressure on myself as well."

Mercedes had no idea and not even those closest to Bottas were aware of how close he was to giving up on his dream.

"I didn't really talk to anybody about it. I was just dealing with it myself. I was pretty alone in that and didn't want to talk about it, which now, looking back, maybe I should have talked a bit more, but I really kept it all to myself."

Eventually a walk in a frozen forest in Finland cleared his mind and convinced him to continue. Stood among nature and completely disconnected from the world of F1, he rediscovered his love for the sport.

"Luckily I managed to see the big picture, that I still have some time in F1 and opportunities ahead," he said. "And then the next year, 2019, I would say was probably my best season.

"I'm glad I didn't quit. I think I would have regretted it. Now, looking back, because once you get some rest and manage to disconnect a bit and so on, then at some point you realise how cool the sport is.

"Especially when you love racing, it is the pinnacle of the sport. I'm sure I would have regretted it a lot."

Although Bottas went on to have his best season at Mercedes in 2019, taking four race victories over the course of the year, he still finished second to Hamilton in the standings. In 2020 and 2021 he also failed to mount a convincing challenge for the title and for 2022 he was replaced at Mercedes by rising star George Russell, who had long been earmarked as the team's future.

At times in his Mercedes career, Bottas was equal to or even faster than Hamilton, but those moments were fleeting and never amounted to a genuine championship challenge. It would have been understandable if he'd held a grudge against his former teammate -- the one person who stood between him and his dream of being world champion -- but instead the two became close over their time together and are even closer now Bottas has left Mercedes.

This year they have often shared flights to and from races and regularly catch up with each other to discuss racing and life.

"When I joined the team I didn't imagine that we would become mates, because it was highly competitive and of course he saw me as a threat as well and has the winning mentality that the only thing he wants to do is win," Bottas said. "But it's nice how things turned out.

"He doesn't trust that many people in the world, and I think my feeling is that he doesn't have many true friends that he can trust, so it's nice that we have this good teammate bond. And then especially when it was confirmed that I wasn't going to continue with the team, it was even less competition and stress between us two. It's cool."

At Alfa Romeo this year, Bottas has joined a very different team to Mercedes. He is now seen as the team leader but in a project that is starting out from the back of the grid rather than one that is targeting championships. In doing so, Bottas has had to switch his expectations ahead of each race weekend from winning to simply being competitive enough to challenge for top ten finishes.

"It's a different mindset," he says. "I had a bit of time to prepare for it at the end of last year already and then the winter mentally preparing. I take this more like a project and have goals on the way.

"Of course I would love to win races and fight for race wins every weekend, but this situation we are in as a team and the satisfaction and rewards come from different things, like seeing clear progress or even getting points in the tight midfield would be a good feeling.

"So it's a different mindset for sure, and it's not that easy initially to cope with, especially when you see after every race the drivers on the podium because of course we want to be there. But we just need to focus on the work with the team and on our goals. That's the only way forward."

The gap between Mercedes and Alfa Romeo seems huge in F1, yet Bottas believes there isn't as big a gulf between the two operations as the points table would suggest. He's also hopeful that F1's budget cap, introduced last year to level the playing field between teams, will narrow the gaps between F1's front runners and its tightly packed midfield over coming years.

"Alfa Romeo is not that far off [Mercedes]," he said. "We are speaking about small margins in Formula One.

"I think with the budget cap and the next few years go ahead, then things should hopefully stabilise a bit more. Because, obviously, the bigger teams spent quite a lot of money in the years before already investing for this generation of cars, so over time, in theory, everything should come together.

"In terms of the factory, all the tools are there. Probably still lacking the people, a little bit of working power compared to the bigger teams, but there has been some progress made with that.

"For example, next year the team should have more people for the production of parts and stuff like that, so it still will take a bit of time but I don't see it as impossible to win a race."

It's a project Bottas wants to be a part of after signing a three-year contract with Alfa Romeo. Many drivers accept roles with midfield teams to showcase their talents to the likes of Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari, but coming the other way puts a different perspective on Bottas' situation.

"In F1 you never know, but at the moment I am fully committed to this as a long-term project," he said. "That is my motivation and my goal and why I work with the team: to see clear progress from one year to another.

"I can easily see myself here for many years, because if you commit to a project there is no point in leaving halfway. But, like I said, it is F1 and you never know what is around, but that is the target."

An added incentive to staying at his current team is the likely involvement of German car manufacturer Audi in the future. Audi has confirmed it plans to build its own engines in 2026 but has yet to announce which team it will be investing in to build its chassis.

It's an open secret in F1 that buying into the Alfa Romeo-branded Sauber team is part of Audi's plan for 2026, meaning Bottas could be at the right place at the right time. But wearing an Alfa Romeo branded team shirt and with the deal yet to be confirmed, Bottas is unable to confirm.

"I've heard some rumours about that," he says with a smile. "I think for any team to have Audi backing would be huge... let's put it that way."

If he remains at the team beyond 2026, Bottas could still return to the front of the grid with a German brand. With lessons learned from his experiences in 2018, he may also be in a position to make the most of the opportunity.