File picture: Oli Scarff / AFP.

Valtteri Bottas is knocking a puck around the ice rink in Melbourne like a pro and charging towards the wall before scraping his blades to stop on the spot as if pulling up a handbrake. Ice has always been part of life for this quiet Finn, who possesses the most and least enviable seat in Formula One: in the killer Mercedes (nice), alongside the force of nature called Lewis Hamilton (dangerous).

Bottas’s preparation for the new season, or what he alternately calls a "challenge" and an "opportunity", has included the rituals of his cold country - saunas and then immersion in freezing water. He has regularly taken a chainsaw to the ice to cut a hole big enough to swim in.

The cliche of the Finnish male involves vodka consumption that would have made Richard Burton blanch. Even Bottas, a clean- living, keen cook of healthy food who is 100 per cent fit for Sunday’s opening Australian Grand Prix, has not entirely lost his thirst.

"I am a 27-year-old young man from Finland," reasoned Bottas, with a smile, after his PR duties with the Melbourne Mustangs ice hockey team were over. "What do you expect?"

At this point he looked sheepishly at the Mercedes media officer. "Bottas hits the bottle" headlines flashed through certain minds. Actually, it was refreshing to hear him be so open when he felt he could be. There was another subject, however, where one sensed he was under instructions to be more watchful of his words, coy even.

We are talking here of Master Hamilton.

For Bottas was handed his chance at Mercedes following Nico Rosberg’s retirement five days after beating Hamilton to the world title.

Bottas left Williams, where he raced 78 times over four seasons with nine podiums and no wins. A bit of what Mercedes bought with Bottas was the hope of a quieter life. No tantrums. None of the Hamilton-Rosberg angst that had festered across half their lifetimes.

Ask about Hamilton and Bottas will say without much elaboration how well they have worked together in their eight days testing together - sharing data unselfishly.

He talks of them being "open" with each other, the partnership being "productive". He says they greet one another warmly enough, though clearly their relationship is not fully formed, and has not been placed under strain.

Bottas, though, feels it would be a waste of Hamilton’s time trying to wind him up. "With any team-mate it is important to keep it professional," he said. "To speak about things freely. I believe we can do that.

"Lewis is a great driver. He has won three titles, he has loads of poles, fastest laps and race wins. I don’t have a win. I have never yet been with a team or in a car that can deliver that. But I trust my own skills. I am a hard worker. I’m going to be learning at the beginning of the year. You can’t expect everything to be perfect from from lap one. I know I am capable of making the most of being at this team."

Stakes are high for Bottas

Should Bottas fail dramatically, his stay at Mercedes could be short-lived. He was signed on a one-year contract with options on a second. At that point more lauded names will become available, with Sebastian Vettel highest on the list of golden boys.

But, if Bottas succeeds in beating Hamilton, he will probably have emulated his hero Mika Hakkinen, champion in 1998 and 1999, by winning the title.

The elder Finn was proving his brilliance as Bottas was starting out in karts, having stumbled upon a track with his father, Rauno, in Nastola, a city close to their home in southern Finland.

Hakkinen is now one of Bottas’s managers, along with Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, who facilitated the driver’s move along the pit lane.

Bottas, who gave up ice hockey aged 15 to concentrate on racing, seems content with his lot. Happy to make the sacrifices that a demanding life on the road entails, such as leaving behind his wife Emilia Pikkarainen, the former Olympic swimmer.

On the work-side, he is relishing the depth of technical analysis he has encountered at Mercedes.

But perhaps we should conclude with a note of caution. Let’s not forget that Rosberg, at the pinnacle of his triumph, walked out of Formula One because Lewis Hamilton was the kind of racer you beat once in a lifetime, at most.

Daily Mail

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