Nobody knows anything. Said of Hollywood; applies absolutely to F1. Certainly to F1 in 2017. Valtteri Bottas took his first ever win in the Russian Grand Prix at Sochi for Mercedes. And not only was this unanticipated in of itself, we had rather a corkscrew plot in getting there.
In advance we thought Mercedes would bounce back in Russia after Ferrari got the upper hand last time out in Bahrain. The famously gentle-on-tyres Sochi track would tilt things its way.
Ferrari flies the flag
In the event, not so. Ferrari looked well on top as Mercedes flailed with tyre handling, and come qualifying not even Merc’s lauded quali power unit modes were quite enough, as Ferrari locked out the front row of the starting grid. Most therefore expected the red team to run and hide in the race.
The race however very quickly looked different. But perhaps we could have foreseen it all. Or at least pieced it together. Amid the assumption of Ferrari dominance a few pointed out that the Merc was quick in the long run to the first proper turn, so Bottas was in a good place to seize the lead from the off – which he did. Bottas’s race pace based on practice was good, it’s just that few thought he’d get into a position to exploit it – which he in fact did. Plus the Finn has an exceptional record at this track.
Thus, like The Alchemist, in the race everything in Bottas’s universe aligned in his favour. But that shouldn’t let you think he was lucky – aside from one small aberration Bottas absolutely made the best of it.
Bottas bounces back
Once in first place he looked like one born to lead, and indeed rapidly developed a gap to the chasing Sebastian Vettel. Seb wasn’t letting things lie though, first he chiselled at the gap then later – thanks to as ever sharp Ferrari strategy – got a real good run at the Finn in the final laps with much fresher tyres.
In typical Sochi style there wasn’t much wheel-to-wheel action, but the tension as Vettel homed in on Bottas, then stalked him, was palpable. There wasn’t much overtaking around but the tiniest error would be pounced upon by Seb in an instant, and the win would have been his. Valtteri indeed earlier had one such moment, when Seb was too far away to strike. But there were no more errors from him; his win a vindication just when vultures were circling. And you’ll struggle to find many not pleased at Valtteri’s freshman triumph.
As for Lewis Hamilton, that we’ve got this far into a review without mentioning him underlines just what an odd Russian stop off it was. Half a second off Bottas in qualifying; 36 seconds off him by the end of the race. He finished a subdued fourth, and spoke non-specifically afterwards about knowing what his problems were.
Seb was gracious in defeat, reflecting possibly that his title lead now stretches to 13. But perhaps on today’s evidence we also were premature in assuming that was a two-horse race. As Valtteri, after all, is even after his trying start to the season now within a race win of the summit.
Certainly a few more like today will do him no harm. Plus if this campaign is teaching us anything, we shouldn’t be too sure when projecting ahead.