If you were to replay the 2018 Formula 1 season, you could pinpoint the Azerbaijan Grand Prix as the moment Valtteri Bottas’s championship campaign collapsed.
The Finn arrived in Baku 14 points down on the championship lead, but had it not been for poor strategy in Bahrain and poor luck in China, he could have easily led the standings himself.
So once he’d maneuvered himself into a race-winning position in Azerbaijan, Bottas had every reason to think he was finally about to get his season back on track – until he suffered a freak, high-speed puncture with three laps remaining.
He failed to take the checkered flag and fell to 30 points behind teammate Lewis Hamilton in the title race. The result begat a horror year for the Finn in which he failed to win a race on his way to fifth in the standings.
But Bottas has shown signs of recovery in 2019, claiming a win and a pair of second-place finishes so far. Now back in Baku, he believes the Azeri streets owe him a good result.
“Last year was pretty unlucky,” he said. “It’s a pretty unique race and anything can happen here – the year before I was one lap down to everyone and I finished second. So I am coming here with a good mindset, knowing that anything is possible.”
Reflecting on the difficulties of 2018 that stemmed back to his crushing result in Azerbaijan, Bottas acknowledged that he’s become a stronger driver for having suffered through such a difficult season.
“Failures shouldn’t have a negative impact, and for sure in those moments you gain some strength out of it once you get over it, but it’s life, it’s racing,” he said philosophically. “Sometimes you have heartbreaking moments like that and you have to deal with those.
“For sure in terms of points it was a big hit … but that was back then and now we are here.”
And here Bottas’s task is no longer about redeeming the past but taking the fight to teammate Hamilton, who snatched the championship lead from him in China to hold a six-point advantage.
Although Hamilton has led him home in the last two grands prix, the Finn is taking heart in the fact that he’s been approximately on the Briton’s pace in both races – a marked improvement on 2018.
“It’s working on yourself and your driving and within the team,” he said. “Every year performance-wise I have been able to make steps, and I feel like I made one again.
“Performance-wise we have been close, which is good, and points-wise we are close at the moment, which is good. There’s no magic; it’s just working on how to improve and focusing on the details.”
It’s a similar approach Bottas will take to the Azerbaijan Grand Prix itself, with the tricky super-fast street circuit demanding high levels of concentration or those seeking the sort of rewards the Finn so nearly claimed here last season.
“It’s a very unique grand prix and anything can happen here,” he said. “Even if your race starts well, you have to prepare for anything and really keep focused, minimize all the mistakes through the weekend.
“It’s very easy to touch the wall in qualifying or practice and your weekend can be compromised. So really just need to take it in the moment and take it corner by corner. A good feeling for the weekend, see what comes and keep focused.”