Arguably the next star F1 driver coming out of Finland, Valtteri Bottas has finally achieved his first race victory after 81 career races. As the replacement to the retired reigning World Champion Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, the Finn has quickly proven his worth at the head of the field. In a race that did not feature lots of overtaking, the battle for the win was tense nonetheless, which involved Bottas trying to preserve his lead against the Ferrari of polesitter Sebastian Vettel, who was on fresher tires. But if there’s one quality that makes Bottas a future star of the sport, it’s his ability to be calm under pressure, and that was exactly what was put to the test on his way to his maiden win.
With proven mastery of the Sochi Autodrom, Bottas demonstrated strong pace throughout the weekend, most importantly out-qualifying teammate Lewis Hamilton with a lap that was four-tenths quicker. However, the two Ferraris of Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen were marginally better, hence locking out the front row of the starting grid.
Right off the line, Bottas was able to make a better start than the Ferraris, immediately tucking in behind Vettel for the slipstream, and finishing off the overtake for the lead well before the entire field brakes for Turn 2. A crash between the Renault of Jolyon Palmer and the Haas of Romain Grosjean at the back of the field triggered a brief Safety Car period. On the restart, Bottas just flew into the distance, creating a comfortable gap between him and Vettel throughout his first stint. Meanwhile, the counterparts to the leading Ferrari and Mercedes, Raikkonen and Hamilton, remained third and fourth respectively until the end of the race. Hamilton experienced overheating problems with his car and was unable to threaten Raikkonen for third.
At the lead of the pack, it was yet another Mercedes-Ferrari battle and the duel between Bottas and Vettel lasted the entire 52-lap race, though it was definitely a slow burner. Like the entire field, both drivers had only a one-stop strategy, starting on the Ultrasoft tires before switching to the prime Supersoft tires for their respective second stints. Bottas pitted from the lead on Lap 27 while Vettel stayed out for a handful more laps in an attempt to have a shorter final stint on fresher rubber than his rival. With tire degradation generally low in Sochi, Vettel continued to match Bottas’ pace even after the latter’s pit stop. Vettel eventually pitted on Lap 34, emerging back to second place and only 4.7 seconds behind Bottas in the lead once again.
Those final 18 laps to the finish were tense, as Vettel slowly trimmed the gap to the leader. By Lap 42, the gap went as low as 1.2 seconds not just from Vettel having fresher tires, but also due to a mistake from Bottas, who locked his tires at a heavy braking zone at Turn 13. However, the Finn regained his composure to neutralize the approach of his immediate challenger. As the leaders began encountering back-markers, it was nip and tuck between the Merc and the Ferrari, as the gap more or less stabilized between 1 and 2 seconds. Vettel was unable to make a real challenge as Bottas marched on to the checkered flag.
After two rough races in China and Bahrain, Bottas has shown Mercedes that he’s a worthy driver and that he can deliver wins for the reigning Constructors’ Champions. However, Bottas still has a lot to prove given his circumstances of being on a one-year contract and being teammate to a triple World Champion. There was speculation that Mercedes needed to define a number-one and a number-two driver between him and Hamilton but with both of their men now having one race win apiece this season, that idea continues to remain as speculation and might just be dismissed for the time being. The Finn is driving for his future, more than anything, and performances such as this are what he needs to show his new team that he’s no pushover.
In terms of the championship, Vettel remains on top but now enjoys a 13-point lead as Hamilton struggled throughout the weekend.
Formula One returns to Western Europe in two weeks for the Spanish Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya. Several teams are expected to bring upgrades with them as the season kicks off its proper European leg.