Williams Formula One driver Valtteri Bottas drives towards a third place qualification at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal Saturday June 8, 2013.
Photograph by: Phil Carpenter, Montreal Gazette
MONTREAL — There was birthday cake in the Williams F1 paddock at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve Saturday afternoon, but the sweet treat celebrated not only another year for one man.
It marked a much more significant milestone for his son.
While Rauno Bottas was marking his 51st year, his son, Valtteri, was taking full advantage of Montreal’s wet weather during three rounds of qualifying to earn the third grid position for Sunday’s 44th Canadian Grand Prix.
It was a huge achievement for Bottas, a 23-year-old rookie, in just the seventh F1 race of his young career. And it was great news for the Williams team, which arrived here seeking both its first point of the season and indeed its first foray into the third qualification session, having failed to make the final cut in six previous races.
In Bottas’s half-dozen F1 starts, he was no better than 14th off the grid.
Ultimately, Bottas didn’t have the goods to get the job done on Sunday, serving in Turn 1 as plankton to the sharks that were Mercedes’s Nico Rosberg and Red Bull’s Mark Webber.
The young Finn had lost three spots by the third lap and finally would be shuffled back out of a point-scoring result, taking the checkered flag in 14th place.
“We fought hard to try to secure some points today, but ultimately we just didn’t have the pace in the car,” Bottas said.
“I didn’t get a great start, which allowed a few cars to jump me on the first lap, and in the dry conditions we simply couldn’t match the level of competitiveness we showed (Saturday).”
Make no mistake, the rain that fell with varying degrees of enthusiasm in all three Saturday qualifying sessions played a major role in Bottas’s second-row effort. Everyone on the grid knew it, including himself.
“We were on the right tires at the right time, which was so important today,” he said after the nervy, hour-long session. “The showers made the track very slippery but this suited us as the car handled the conditions well.
“If the conditions are dry (Sunday), then it will be difficult to stay where we are, so I will be hoping that we see some rain. The whole team has been working hard to improve our performance and we have been making steady improvements with each race.”
The “steady improvements” claim is debatable, even if it was an encouraging pat on the back by Botta for those doing all they can to reverse the team’s lean fortunes.
Williams came to Montreal tied with F1 bottom-feeders Marussia and Caterham at the base of the table with zero points.
Driver Pastor Maldonado, the veteran of 45 Grand Prix races, had failed to finish in three of six races and would wind up 16th here; he and Bottas, who has been running at the end of every race, each have the team-best results of 11th place.
Botta’s Montreal-qualifying rank of third “means a lot,” he said. “We’re way further up than we could ever imagine.
“It has been so difficult for the first six races for us, and it’s a nice boost for the team. We really got everything quite right here today. …
“I think the fact is that in the dry, the car does not belong in P3 at the moment,” Botta admitted.
“Our team was always hoping for rain as there’s always a chance if you get everything right that you can always finish higher than the car (is capable of).”
Williams is battling to find traces of the form that earned it nine constructors titles and seven drivers’ championships from 1980-97, the last of both won by Jacques Villeneuve.
This weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix was Williams’s 611th F1 race since 1975, a span that has yielded 114 wins, 127 poles and 297 podiums. But the famous name hasn’t been on a Montreal podium in a decade, when Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya finished second and third for Williams/BMW to Ferrari’s Michael Schumacherin in 2003.
No matter Sunday’s result, the qualifying effort of Bottas was a huge personal shot of adrenalin and confidence for the young man who is being mentored by former world champion Mika Hakkinen, a fellow Finn.
Hakkinen’s pupil is a graduate of various open-wheel classes, having first got into a kart at age six and served as Williams’s test driver in 2010-11. Bottas took part in 15 practice sessions for the team last year upon promotion to the role of its reserve driver.
“I haven’t had any problems with pressure,” he wrote last week in a rookie-diary instalment for formula1.com. “It is me who really wants to do well — to be the best one day — so the pressure comes from within me.
“Of course, it is great if other people also expect a lot from me as it shows that they have confidence in my skills. But no, pressure is not an issue — perhaps it’s because I’m Finnish.”
Bottas leaves Montreal without the coveted first point of his career, but with his databank further enriched. Progress in F1 racing is sometimes made with minuscule steps, and the talented Williams rookie took quite a few of those here.
What his 14th-place finish did, however, was deny what promised to be the highlight of the weekend: Bottas vowed to jump into the St. Lawrence River had he scored an unspecified strong result.
“I’m used to swimming in frozen lakes in Finland,” he said, “so it’s no problem.”
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