By Alan Baldwin
SUZUKA, Japan (Reuters) - Valtteri Bottas could claim truthfully to have been the fastest runner around the Suzuka Formula One circuit this weekend but on race day the Williams reserve was just a spectator.
The highly-rated young Finn, a protege of McLaren's double world champion Mika Hakkinen, may not have to endure the situation for much longer however.
There is no doubting his fitness, with Bottas quick on his feet on Saturday evening in a regular race weekend run for charity undertaken by Formula One paddock regulars (www.runthattrack.info).
The 23-year-old, the GP3 series winner in 2011 whose girlfriend swam for Finland in this year's London Olympics, is also race ready and yearning to show what he can do.
Bottas has been carefully prepared by Williams, with time in the team simulator and on track in place of Bruno Senna in Friday first practice to give him as much experience as possible, and next season he could be racing for real.
"Valtteri's progress has been exceptional," team chief operations engineer Mark Gillan told Reuters in the Suzuka paddock.
Neither Senna nor well-funded Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado has been confirmed for next season, although Williams are keen to keep the latter after his Spanish Grand Prix victory.
The Brazilian's future appears less certain, but money could ultimately be a factor.
"There's no decision made and I don't know when it's going to be made," Bottas, who speaks to Hakkinen every week and asked his compatriot for some Suzuka tips before Friday practice, told Reuters.
"But this season has been really, really good for me to learn and I'm learning nearly all the circuits and getting some mileage in the car.
"I feel I am ready to have my first race but you never know when that is going to happen."
There is no in-season testing, other than limited days for 'young' drivers who sometimes stretch the definition to the limits of credulity, and Bottas has been fortunate to have spent time behind the wheel at 11 of 15 race weekends so far.
He has learned the circuits and the workings of the team and his lap times have been noted beyond the confines of his immediate employers.
So much so that he was even linked to a possible move to McLaren as a replacement for departing 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton in some paddock speculation, perhaps not so surprising given Hakkinen's bond with that team and their signing of a young Kimi Raikkonen in 2002.
With the strong support of Williams shareholder and executive director Toto Wolff, Bottas would appear as well placed as anyone to make the step up to a full race seat next season.
"We've really pushed his development so we have spent a lot of effort with him in the simulator and at the track and there's no doubt he's getting ready," said Gillan.
"He's close to be ready to be racing but what's best for him we'll discuss behind closed doors."
Bottas had no doubt what would be best for him. He needs to be racing and has missed it more and more as the season progresses.
"I have been trying to do all other kinds of races like triathlon and running races and stuff like that," he said before his 5.8km run around Suzuka's classic figure-of-eight layout. "It's not easy but hopefully that will change.
"I need to race, that's for sure. Two years without racing at this stage of your career is too much. You will be then too rusty and it will be difficult to pick it up again."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)