Analysis: How Bottas had to step up to claim maiden F1 win
Sebastian Vettel threw all he had at Valtteri Bottas in Russia, but when push came to shove there was just no denying the Finn his first F1 race win.
The first time is always significant, and for Valtteri Bottas his maiden grand prix victory could hardly have been achieved with more style.
It wasn't inherited, or in any way the result of good fortune.
Bottas won the Russian GP with great driving at either end of it – firstly his superb start, and then later the classy way he managed to stay safely clear of pursuer Sebastian Vettel in the closing laps, ducking and diving his way through traffic, and ultimately out-foxing the four-time world champion.
He may have experienced some frustrations in his first three outings for Mercedes, but in his fourth Bottas proved beyond all doubt that the team has picked the ideal replacement for Nico Rosberg. And from here, he can only get better.
The value of the tow
On Friday and Saturday at least, Sochi appeared to favour Ferrari, and the Maranello team's long overdue front row lock-out showed that it had mastered the challenge of managing its tyres at the notoriously fickle venue.
With Bottas starting third, and Lewis Hamilton a somewhat bemused fourth, Mercedes faced a tough task on Sunday.
However, the long drag from the start means that it's not always favourable to be the man on pole, and Bottas proved the value of the tow. He passed Kimi Raikkonen off the line, and then dragged past pole man Vettel to take the lead.
He showed at the restart in Bahrain that he's not afraid to get his elbows out, and he did so again here.
The Ferrari pit wall must have been shell-shocked to see its one-two grid formation so comprehensively overturned by Bottas in the space of a corner, and the only good news was that Raikkonen was able to keep Hamilton behind, so that the red cars emerged in second and third.
Ultrasoft is ultraquick
The real surprise – even to the two teams themselves – was what happened next. Bottas began to pull away with apparent ease, and there seemed to be nothing that Vettel could do about it. The gap was 1.8s after five laps, 3.2s after 10 laps, and 4.5s after 15 laps.
On the ultrasoft at least, the Mercedes driver seemed more comfortable than his pursuer.
Vettel, meanwhile, was convinced that he could have stayed ahead has he held onto the lead in those crucial opening seconds.
"It's difficult to pass, let's put it that way," said the German. "I think it would have been difficult for Valtteri to put a lot of pressure on, even though I would say he had superior pace in the first stint. I think if you look at the stint I was struggling in the beginning, then sort of froze the gap and then was able to close."
Indeed that was the case. The gap peaked at 5.5s on Lap 20, and then it gradually began to come down again as the middle of the race approached. Vettel reported blisters on his left front, as did Max Verstappen back in fifth, and with tyres reaching their sell-by date, Mercedes began to think about pitting Bottas.
"Our simulations showed us that if we pitted we would end up in massive backmarker traffic," said Toto Wolff. "So we preferred to stay out and get through Magnussen and Kvyat rather than to be spitted out in massive traffic. And this is why we kept him out."
It was a question of timing it just right. The gap hit 2.5s at half distance on lap 26, and on lap 27, the leader was called in to take on supersofts. Vettel, meanwhile, kept circulating – he was told, "push now, we need everything."
He put in some good laptimes on his by now ageing ultrasofts, which he had managed to keep in good condition.
"You could see that Valtteri was really pushing at the beginning, and then made this gap of five seconds," said Wolff.
"And this is why his tyre was a little bit more worn than Sebastian's, because he was able to pull faster laptimes and faster sectors, and that is why they kept him out – hoping it would be enough."
Indeed Vettel was told "we are staying out, your pace is very good," and on lap 33 an initial call to come in was reversed, and he stayed out for one more lap.
He finally pitted on lap 34, emerging with tyres that were precisely seven laps younger than those on the leader's Mercedes, and with 18 laps with which to close a gap of 4.6s. It was game on.
A race that had been intriguing, if hardly a thriller, then came alive.
Vettel may have scored most of his F1 wins from the front, but he's also an accomplished hunter given a sniff of victory, and he had that now. In just three laps the gap came down to 4.0s, as both men ran their personal fastest laps to date.
And then on lap 38 Bottas made a crucial mistake, locking up not just one front tyre at Turn 13, but both, and sliding wide. He lost a crucial second just on that lap, and 0.8s on the next one as he tried to recover his composure and his tyres.
Meanwhile, Vettel was told that Bottas had a big flat spot on the left front, which gave him further motivation.
"I definitely lost some time during that lap, doing the flat spot," said the Finn. "The team was asking me to go forward with the brake bias, giving advice just to help the tyre temperatures. I had the flat spot, so I had to go rearwards. I also had a little bit of traffic during that point."
Indeed he lost some momentum as he worked his way past Lance Stroll, and suddenly, at the end of lap 41, the gap was just 1.5s. By now hunter Vettel could smell blood.
"He locked both front tyres and flat-spotted them," said Wolff. "And our vibration metrics showed that it was pretty severe damage to the tyres, which harmed his performance at the end. And it was a bit of a stressful moment. But he kept it together."
The last seven or eight laps were great motor racing, as Vettel put in some very quick laps. In the middle of lap 49, with three to go, he took the gap below a second for the first time, putting himself in DRS range.
Across the line the gap was 0.9s on Lap 50, and 0.7s on lap 51 – and then on the last lap Vettel stumbled over Felipe Massa, and crucial momentum was lost.
Bottas held on to cross the line 0.6 clear, having survived the scare after he locked up.
Vettel made his frustration about Massa all too clear, but when he'd had time to reflect he accepted that it was the start that had made all the difference for Bottas.
Vettel was magnanimous enough to recognise that Bottas had simply got the job done.
"We can talk about my race, but today is Valtteri's day. He drove a fantastic race, he had incredible pace. Also, if you look all weekend where he's been compared to his teammate, he's done a superb job. It's his day, and he deserves to win today because he drove better than all the rest of us."
The Mercedes joy over a first win for Bottas was tempered by the performance of Hamilton, who wasn't in the game all day. Power unit temperature issues were a major compromise, but the former champion simply struggled for performance throughout.
"He felt that he couldn't make the car or make the tyres function, so we need to find out why," said Wolff.
"We know it is very difficult to keep the tyres in the right window, and it is certainly something that we have to work on, because Ferrari seems to struggle less, the window is probably larger, and he was never in that window."
No doubt Hamilton will bounce back in Spain, and the likelihood is that Sochi prove to be a blip, in the same way that Baku was last year. But one thing is now clear – he knows he doesn't just have to take on and beat Vettel, because his new teammate is also going to keep him on his toes.
"For sure, getting the first win is something special," said Bottas. "Even though you always believe in yourself, because there's no point being here or doing this if you don't believe in your skill, if you think that you are not able to win then definitely you should stay home.
"But, actually getting the confirmation, getting the result, because results are what matters in this world, how many points you score, how many races you can win, how many times you be on the podium. That's the name of the game.
"And getting that first win, it definitely gives me confidence that I can do it even though I've always knew I had the ability. But now it's done, and now I just want to do it again and again. It's not that simple this year.
"It's going to be always a massive fight at least for the first half of the year, it's going to be a fight with four different drivers."
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