Sunday 9 July 2017

Austrian GP Report - Bottas barks

It was, as Sherlock Holmes might have it, the dog that didn't bark. Rarely had we entered a race with so many apparent variables as today's in Austria. Lewis Hamilton from starting eighth would come through the pack. The higher temperatures made tyre life - particularly via blistering - unknown. Some would have to switch to the soft compound having hardly, or in some cases having never, run them this weekend. Rain was around too, a few putting the likelihood at 80%.

Just like in Russia, Valtteri Bottas took a fine win with
Sebastian Vettel breathing down his neck
Photo: Octane Photography
None of these things happened. Instead we got a study in domination from poleman Valtteri Bottas. Fine it was too.

He started as he meant to go on. His race get-go was so good that some thought it was too good, and the stewards investigated a jump start. Second-place starter Sebastian Vettel considered the Finn bang to rights. "From my point of view, he jumped the start - I was sure that he did," said Vettel later. "It looked like it from inside the car, but it's not for me to judge at the end of the day."

Simply not moving before the lights go out ain't necessarily enough; if you're moving within two tenths of a second of it - beyond human capability it is thought - you'll still get penalised for an anticipated launch. And Bottas clocked it at... 0.201secs. It appears instead it simply was the perfect start.

The man himself thought so. "I think that was the start of my life, I was really on it today," Bottas said. "When the car was moving, the lights were off - that is the main thing."

Whatever, he was lengths clear at turn one.

And it was a portent. Bottas in the first stint was like a metronome, moving clear with almost identical lap times time after time. He was three seconds clear after seven tours; near enough five clear after 15; as we approached pit stop time at half distance he was nearly eight seconds up the road.

Bottas's start was so good that some thought it was too good
Photo: Octane Photography
For most of the way his opposition was minor. Ferrari tried to pull a fast one by leaving Kimi Raikkonen out forever without pitting, so he'd hold the pitted Bottas up. But Bottas dealt with it like he'd dealt with everything else, as if flicking away a fly. Before we knew it he was back ahead, leaving Ferrari appropriately with its tail between its legs.

It then looked like Valtteri had it taped, back in the lead with 4.5 seconds in hand to the next guy (still Seb) and on fresher tyres. But then if the race's dog didn't quite bark, it at least growled a bit.

Bottas's left rear tyre developed a nasty blister, and it became an almost exact parallel to Bottas's first win, in Sochi earlier this year, as Vettel closed in on him late on and got with him in the final laps. Just like then a processional race got some late tension. But just like then Valtteri was unflinching. Just like then he won by six tenths.

The similarity wasn't lost on the victorious Finn. "I had a bit of a deja vu after what happened in Russia," he said on the podium.

"In the last stint I had a massive blister from lap five-six, which made it tricky. I could control the pace but backmarkers made it tricky.

Bottas held off Vettel to win
Photo: Octane Photography
"For sure he [Vettel] was getting close and they had more pace."

Seb meanwhile was fairly content with second. "Obviously I wanted to win but nevertheless this is a good result," he noted.

"It was very close. I was told he was in trouble, but I was pushing anyway.

"I felt much happier in the second part of the race, the first part I was struggling a bit to feel the car. But as soon as we put the supersoft tyres on the car came alive.

"I had very good pace and was catching little by little so the last laps it was getting really close. I had Perez who cost me a little time with lapped cars but I think I needed one more lap as he [Bottas] was struggling to get up the hill."

The Finn, slightly tacitly, concurred. "Difficult to say [what would have happened with] one more lap, he added. "I was happy the race ended that lap."

As for the things our canine friend stayed quiet about, firstly the tyres held on much better than anticipated. There was some blistering as noted but virtually all manged it fine. The likes of Bottas and Vettel did half the distance or more on the ultrasoft. The pariah soft tyre was hardly used.

Vettel thought he could have won with another
lap, and extends his title lead
Photo: Octane Photography
Then we had Lewis, who early on got pulses quickening when he cleared Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean in successive laps. But then, in fifth, he got stuck behind Raikkonen for 13 tours. And on a contra strategy wherein he'd hoped to run longer he in fact pitted first among the leaders, as he was losing so much in the Ferrari's wake.

This got him ahead of Kimi - who as noted was being used as a pawn in any case - but his progress from then-on was slow. After an early stunning lap on the ultrasoft he started to complain about oversteer, and his right rear tyre did look rather marked up. For a time he wasn't catching those ahead.

Later he came alive though, and homed in on Daniel Ricciardo for the final podium place as the laps ticked down in a similar way to Seb closing on Valtteri. Lewis even got alongside at one point, but was rebuffed. Just like the leading pair they finished in the same order. Daniel, amazingly, now has five podium finishes in a row.

The rain stayed away too, though the odd spot was reported late on.

Vettel was Bottas's closest challenger throughout, though as has been the growing sense in recent times looked - until late at least - that he dind't have the legs of the Merc. But just like in Baku he left this one with his title lead actually extended, this time to 20. Maybe it's true what they say about Seb having a charmed existence whenever he's in a title fight.

Daniel Ricciardo got on the podium for the fifth race in a row
Photo: Octane Photography
But then again we perhaps can't now assume that will be a matter only for two men. Valtteri is only 15 shy of Lewis now (and 35 of the top). And one thought that occurs is that without his car breaking down in Spain he'd be neck and neck with his team mate...

Kimi the pawn trailed in fifth, while Romain Grosjean converted his great pace this weekend by coming home sixth, the last on the lead lap. His Haas stable mate Kevin Magnussen's ill-luck continued though as he dropped out on lap 30 with an apparent hydraulic problem.

His ill-luck however is nothing on that of home from home hero Max Verstappen, as he only got as far as the first corner today. His start was poor and his anti-stall kicked in, and it put him in the line of fire of an errant Daniil Kvyat, who got his first turn braking wrong and punted Fernando Alonso's McLaren into Max's Bull.

Max and Nando were out after touring to the pits. Kvyat continued and got a drive through penalty for his pains. For Max it made it five retirements from the last seven.

Daniil Kvyat wiped out Fernando Alonso
and Max Verstappen at turn one
Photo: Octane Photography
The remaining points places were filled by two Force Indias (Perez ahead, him fortunate to get away with some blocking of Bottas while being lapped) and then two Williams (Felipe Massa ahead, both vaulted forward amid the first corner contretemps and stayed there).

But there are bigger matters afoot out front. The encroaching tale of Valtteri Bottas, and that he might be adding one to our already-intriguing two-man title fight. "Really a perfect weekend for me, pole position and a race win," he added later, once it had all sunk in a little further. "It's only my second win in Formula One".

Seb for one was in little doubt that Valtteri is a championship contender. "I think he always has been," the German said. "He's one of the quickest drivers. He's been a bit under-rated."

More days like today and he won't be.

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