Valtteri Bottas caused something of a mild stir last week with comments to Finnish television about some of the issues he experienced in Austria and Hungary.
They were not big, serious, problems, just a couple of small details in a complex sport where occasional imperfection is inevitable.
No, the significant thing was the fact that Valtteri had chosen to talk about them.
In his contest with team-mate Lewis Hamilton for this year’s world title, can we take this as a sign of Bottas getting tough with his Mercedes team, becoming more demanding? Or a sign of paranoia, that the stresses of the competition are getting to him?
Bottas is constantly looking internally, searching to extract the maximum performance from himself. At least part of him believes he has it in him to defeat Hamilton over a season.
He searches intently; not just the usual telemetry comparisons that show him what he needs to do to match that magical combination of pace with tyre usage, the area where Hamilton has invariably been able to ace him. But also how to get himself to a place mentally where he’s able to take on that momentous task and apply all the details that involves, relentlessly, without mercy, no let up in chasing the most marginal of gains.
He seems to have stepped this up in his preparations to this season. As well as whatever mental preparation techniques he has been using, he also took to driving a rally car on stages, just further broadening out his basic skillset, finding different ways of solving the puzzle that each corner represents, trying to make his driving more improvisational, like Hamilton’s, less constrained by a set approach. His pre-season preparations were intense, even by his own standards.
So perhaps it’s the intensity of that search for the missing ingredient which has set Bottas to apply the exact same demands of his team.
On the Saturday of the the second Austria race, he told Finnish TV, his ride height was set incorrectly, a problem that may have contributed towards him glazing a brake disc in qualifying. In Hungary, for the final Q3 run, he was fuelled for two flying laps when he was only ever going to be doing one, so the car was unnecessarily heavier.
Would it have made the difference in the just over 0.1s he trailed Hamilton’s pole by?
“Obviously I only heard about it on Saturday evening,” he said. “In theory we lost something like a little bit less than a tenth of a second…. we need to analyse how this happened and to avoid the same in future.”
Would that in turn have contributed to his blowing his start, craning to see the gantry lights above the halo and reacting instead to some steering lights?
One of the key reasons Toto Wolff chose Bottas as the Nico Rosberg replacement was that he was a less adversarial character. Bottas was not someone who, in his competing with Hamilton, would deliberately use psychological warfare.
Hamilton himself has said that his performances stepped up significantly in 2017 and that this would not have been possible had Rosberg still been there. Bottas is a much more straightforward character and the ambience in the garages is much easier than it ever was in the Hamilton/Rosberg days.
But after defeat at the hands of Hamilton for three straight seasons, and not by insignificant margins, it would only be natural for Bottas to begin looking at whether that trait was hurting him, whether his more accepting nature was allowing a more casual approach from his crew to creep in.
Going public on such faults is a very fine line to tread. You risk deflating and demotivating the very crew you are relying on. But if Bottas feels it’s necessary, perhaps it’s a deliberate choice.
On the other hand it may simply have been an emotional, frustrated response to his letting himself down with his botched start in Hungary, at a time when he’s allowed his championship lead to be overhauled. At the outer limits of competitiveness, this sport can pivot on incredibly sensitive mechanisms, human just as much as mechanical.