Sunday 30 April 2017

Russian GP Report - Valtteri's validation

Again, what the hell do we know? Practice and qualifying for this Russian Grand Prix in Sochi both told us that in F1 things aren't quite as simple as they may seem in advance. And sure enough neither were they in the race.

Valtteri Bottas had a fine - and unexpected - debut win
Photo: Octane Photography
It was Ferrari's to lose they said, refusing to learn from the above aphorism. Yet within just about a blink of the red light going out the race indeed looked very different. As in this game we have a thing called a standing start.

In among the predictions of a Ferrari walkover there was the odd murmur that the apparently struggling Mercedes is very quick in the long run to the first (proper) Sochi turn, and it might just be able to take advantage. The odd murmur it transpired was a portent. A combination of a fine launch, a slipstream and Merc grunt (plus Sebastian Vettel spoke ruefully later of a head wind not helping him) meant third-place starter Valtteri Bottas swept clean by poleman Vettel's red car before the first braking zone to lead.

And then Bottas - who'd never won a race before and moreover had hardly led one - indeed led like one born to do it. It was a reminder that Bottas's race pace from Friday looked good, it's just that few of us thought he'd be in a position to take advantage of it. Also some worried about Merc's ability to warm its tyres up early on, but an immediate safety car period (brought about by Romain Grosjean and Jolyon Palmer wiping each other out in a big way) seemed to head that off a treat. After one lap of green flag racing Bottas was 1.8 seconds clear. After 20 laps his advantage was 5.5. As outlined, the day had changed.

Vettel admitted that all of this was crucial. "Our start was probably a match with Valtteri," he said later, possibly stretching matters a bit. "Maybe he gained a bit of momentum, he had a massive tow.

"I defended the inside but when we approached the braking zone he was in front and able to shut the door on me. That is where he won the race, he then had an amazing first stint - I couldn't stay with him."

Sebastian Vettel made a race of it
Photo: Octane Photography
But Seb was determined to make a race of it nevertheless - almost from that very same 20 lap point he started to tear chunks out of the gap ahead. Bottas was in traffic and perhaps, once again, the Ferrari was holding onto its tyres for longer.

The Scuderia though, in 2017 usually ultra-sharp on strategy, eschewed an opportunity to pit (for the only time - as ever in Sochi one-stoppers were de rigueur) when around 2.3 seconds off and within undercut territory. Indeed Bottas eventually pitted first, and that, briefly, looked like being that. Especially as Vettel pressed on without pitting himself for several laps to general bewilderment.

But again we should have known better - Ferrari knew what it was doing. It was a classic 'offset', wherein Seb would attack later on fresher tyres. That's precisely what he did. With 18 to go he had 4.7 seconds to make up to Bottas, with seven laps' more freshness in his supersofts. Eminently doable.

Only once did Valtteri put wheel wrong, with 13 laps left. He locked up in a big way then ran wide - oh so nearly taking off a front wheel on the barrier. It gave Vettel extra succour (as well as 1.5 seconds), just at a point at which he was looking racy on fresher tyres anyway. Before we knew it he was right with the Merc.

At least one person wondered if from the championship angle Seb would settle for second, but there was no such luck for Valtteri. Seb was indeed like the predator after prey, and in setting purple sector after purple sector was utterly ruthless.

Bottas was clearly content with his win
Photo: Octane Photography
Yes there wasn't much overtaking today, but Seb's pressure was relentless and it would have been the easiest thing for Valtteri to snatch a brake or similar and Vettel with that would have snatched the lead and the win pronto. But after his earlier error the Finn made no more. And when on the final tour he put a backmarker between himself and his pursuer - in Senna-like fashion - that was indeed that. The freshman win was his. So was proving a few people wrong.

Bottas answered a few critics in Bahrain last time out with his pole position, but those critics then felt vindicated by his tepid performance in the race. They will struggle to find fault with this one however.

And afterwards Bottas clearly was highly content. Still undemonstrative in his oh-so Finnish way - but his occasional faltering in his voice gave him away.

"I felt good, but it's a little bit surreal the first win and hopefully the first of many," said the Finn. "It was definitely one of my best races ever, so it's a good feeling and I am happy."

It was a day for frayed nerves. Bottas just about always was out front. He just about always was in traffic too, his antagonist not showing too much interest in in clearing out of the way. Almost always, whether near or far, an insatiable Vettel was on his case.

"It was OK," said Bottas when asked about it all, "the main thing was the lapped cars, trying to get past those.

Sebastian Vettel was gracious afterwards
Photo: Octane Photography
"With these new cars, we lose more downforce when two seconds, three seconds behind, so it was tricky to get close and pass them without losing time.

"I was not happy on a few occasions and I had one lock-up with 10-15 laps to go, which hurt the pace a bit, but other than that it was OK.

"I did ask for radio silence from the pitwall for me to get on it and get focused."

He's hopeful too that the validation of a race win will serve him well for the future. "I always knew I could get good results if everything goes right and I always trust in my ability," he added. "But it's nice to get confirmation that the results are possible. It's good to continue from here."

A few moaned about 'typical Sochi', and an attendant lack of overtaking. But for sheer tension this one couldn't be faulted. And there's always something about the day of a first time winner... F1 in 2017 continues its charmed existence therefore.

And Seb was gracious. "It was Valtteri's race, he drove an incredible race, he had incredible pace. He deserved to win because he drove better than all of us."

Seb can content himself too that he's extended his championship lead to 13. But what of Valtteri? He's now even with his difficult season-start within a race win of the table top.

In another clear theme of this season it was a day for Mercedes and Ferrari only - to illustrate Max Verstappen in fifth was a whole 30 seconds off the lead after a mere 16 green flag laps. Kimi Raikkonen in the other Ferrari completed the podium finishers, 11 seconds shy of the leading pair and looked pretty decent for the most part this time.

Sergio Perez impressed yet again
Photo: Octane Photography
The perennial Lewis Hamilton however was far from pretty decent, as he continued his oddly subdued weekend, coming home fourth and a whole 36 seconds after his team-mate. During the race he had much radio conversation about temperatures; afterwards he spoke non-specifically about technical problems.

"Through the race I understood it [the problems], yeah," Lewis said. "Speed-wise I think I know where it is, I'll try and fix it for the next one."

The self-same Max indeed finished a lonely fifth, a whole minute behind by the end. While the other Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo didn't last long, dropping out early with a brake fire. It was the second Bull in two races to retire with a brake problem.

In another 2017 theme Sergio Perez was hardly seen on TV but ghosted to a fine result, this time sixth, while in another theme the increasingly-impressive Esteban Ocon followed him home, this time seventh.

Nico Hulkenberg got eighth, only just failing to deprive Ocon ahead at the end. Hulk stretched out his opening stint longer even than Seb did, leaving a 12 lap sprint to attack at the end. But it didn't do much for him in gaining places. Felipe Massa likely would have been sixth but he had to do an extra stop thanks to a slow puncture late on.

Carlos Sainz completed the scorers, recovering from a grid penalty got for his Bahrain adventures.

But even with all of the developing themes, this 2017 F1 season is within it governed by a mischievous fate it seems. One that does rather relish in confounding us, at the precise moment when we think we can venture a solid prediction of what awaits next. But then again, for various reasons, Valtteri Bottas being the real deal - particularly at Sochi - should not have been that much of a surprise.

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