“Did you expect to be ahead of the car that you came out of last year?”
“Have you called Toto?”
“Had you been told you’d be alongside Lewis on the grid in Bahrain, would you have believed it?”
There was a strong theme to the questions Valtteri Bottas was asked after taking sixth on the grid for the Bahrain Grand Prix on his Alfa Romeo debut.
And understandably so. The man defined for the last five seasons by wingman status relative to Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes (and by the team’s different view of what George Russell could be) had just put his Alfa Romeo beside Hamilton on the Sakhir grid and three places ahead of Russell.
For the record, he hadn’t called Toto Wolff at that point as he didn’t have his phone on him. And he and Hamilton had exchanged smiles when they saw each other after qualifying.
As for whether Bottas expected to outqualify Russell? “Not in the first qualifying of the season, no. But it’s cool.”
There was absolutely no hint of malice or gloating or vengeance in Bottas’s thoughts on qualifying so well relative to the team that dropped him last year. There was a lot of good-natured laughter throughout his media session.
But, fun as it was – especially for anyone who’d suspected a change of environment and status might work wonders for Bottas – all that Mercedes stuff was something of a sideshow and not his personal priority.
His ex-team is currently all at sea. His new one – despite pre-season testing being littered with reliability problems and initially badly hampered by a destructive level of porpoising – looks fantastic right now.
“When preparing for today, we definitely saw the top 10 as possible,” said Bottas.
“But actually seeing it in reality, it feels like a bit of a surprise for everyone!
“It’s really important for the team. Alfa has had a couple of tricky years and we’re seeing a bit of light. It’s important to see what is possible.”
Bottas pulled off some remarkable qualifying performances against Hamilton at Mercedes. Maintaining that form consistently over a race stint was often the problem.
But he’s pretty confident Sunday will be different.
“There’s no reason why not,” Bottas replied when asked if he could sustain his and Alfa Romeo’s qualifying form into the race, “because the long runs felt good balance-wise, not any worse than short runs, and the balance has been good.
“I see no reason why we shouldn’t be able to fight with any team except Red Bull and Ferrari.
“They seem to be in their own league. But with the rest, for sure, we can fight with them.”
He summarised the Alfa Romeo as “not bad in the slower corners”, which have been where many teams are struggling most with the transition to the 2022 rules.
“Our weakness is in the fast corners, like Turn 6 and Turn 7 and we also seem to be sliding a bit more in Turn 12, so we’re struggling with the rear grip on the higher speed corners,” he added.
“So, our strength is in low speed and the area where we have more work to do is in high speed.”
When he signed for Alfa Romeo last year, he was “thinking a good first result for the team would be somewhere in the middle of the grid, so about 10th”.
But he had been far from confident of that.
“This was the first session where we would find exactly where we are, we’re up there,” Bottas added.
“I’m happy with it and this actually gives me a lot of hope.
“If I had ended up in P18, it would be a slightly bigger mountain to climb.
“This is still a mountain, but it’s not Mount Everest.”
That was the note on which Bottas left the media pack for the evening. Looking firmly forwards towards what he could achieve in his new life, not back.
But when he got hold of his phone again, it turned out he did send Wolff that message pretty quickly.
“He sent me a WhatsApp saying ‘I’m looking forward to racing you guys tomorrow’,” revealed his former boss at Mercedes.
“I’m happy for him to be honest. I’m happy for Valtteri that he’s made the move to Alfa, he’s the lead driver.
“He’s bringing his great personality to the team and is energising the team. I’m happy for all of them.”