Valtteri Bottas, in just his fourth race for the Silver Arrows, leapt from his third qualifying position and won the drag race down to Sochi’s first corner from the Ferrari front row duo of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. Setting a steady pace, he then cooly held off Vettel’s vigorous charge over the final five laps to win his first Grand Prix, returning Mercedes to the lead in the World Championship by a single point.
Though not wheel-to-wheel, the Bottas-Vettel chase held the crowd’s attention until Bottas was able to pass former teammate Felipe Massa.
Vettel’s charge provided the Russian Grand Prix’s only drama, as the smooth track surface, coupled with Pirelli’s long-lasting Ultrasoft tyres and every team’s one-stop strategy pushed the spectacle from mega into monotonous. Though not wheel-to-wheel, the Bottas-Vettel chase held the crowd’s attention until Bottas was able to pass former teammate Felipe Massa. That created a small buffer between Vettel, allowing Bottas victory by a mere 0.617-second gap. It was his first victory in 81 lifetime Grands Prix.
Practice runs suggested that this would be Ferrari’s race. They were within a half second of Mercedes Ultrasoft tyre times on the “harder” Supersoft tyres. Vettel was pushing from the first practice lap as the incentive of taking pole would be both psychological and historical. Over the three previous Russian Grands Prix, no car other than a Mercedes had been on the pole or at the top of the podium. Vettel set about changing that paradigm immediately.
Both Vettel and a seemingly rejuvenated (or chastened) Kimi Raikkonen traded fastest practice laps in FP1 and FP2. Raikkonen had discussions as opposed to a formal sit-down with Ferrari management about improving his pace and the results were immediate. Both Ferrari drivers found adjustments through a steady and deliberate plan that complemented their individual driving styles on the secondary Supersoft tyre in FP3 and Q1 and went about transferring those pressure and driving requirements to the Ultrasoft compound for Q2. At the start of Q3, every pundit predicted a Ferrari front row and was not let down. Valtteri Bottas set the early pace but both he and teammate Lewis Hamilton (who seemed as though he wanted to be anywhere else this weekend but in Sochi) spent a fair amount of time with “unintentional gardening”, that is running wide on the exits of the slow corners. The result of Ferrari’s forgiving chassis and Mercedes’ less than adjustable form gave Ferrari its first front row in a decade with Vettel .20-seconds over Raikkonen (going all the way back to the 2008 French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours). It was Vettel on Pole, then Raikkonen. Behind them was (surprise) Bottas. Hamilton was a second off the pace down in fourth.
The result of Ferrari’s forgiving chassis and Mercedes’ less than adjustable form gave Ferrari its first front row in a decade with Vettel .20-seconds over Raikkonen.
It was Vettel’s 47th pole and first since 2015 Singapore. We’ll save you the count; it was 32 Grands Prix ago. While Bottas remarked at the Qualifying press debrief that his Mercedes gave all it could give, a beaming Vettel countered that his Ferrari SF70 plainly begged him to “Please to take a seat and push it to the limit…it was a pleasure to drive”. Could Ferrari bring that same competitiveness to the race?
Qualifying, as they say, is just one battle; the war won on Sunday afternoon. Some battle losses came extremely early. Even before he could get to his starting grid position, Fernando Alonso’s McLaren-Honda had an ERS failure. In these first four 2017 Grands Prix, Alonso has suffered DNFs in Australia and China, a 14th place finish in Bahrain and now a DNS in Russia.
As the Mercedes team cars were rolled into position astern of the Ferrari’s, both Bottas and Hamilton knew their “Prime Directive” was to beat Vettel and Raikkonen to the first turn. Failure meant the Scuderia duo would disappear into the distance.
As the lights went out, both Vettel and Raikkonen bogged only slightly but is was enough to vault Bottas into Vettel’s draft and then out and into the lead before the first corner. Vettel had tried to cover the inside line, but by the time he got there, Bottas was already a length or two ahead. Farther back in the pack, Grosjean’s Haas tagged Palmer’s Renault which in turn rotated in the air enough so that it turned and speared Grosjean, guaranteeing mutually assured destruction. The safety car was called, and all wondered if Bottas could hold both heat and optimal pressure in his tyres to keep his lead at the restart.
Bottas had a two second lead on Vettel by Lap 8, while Daniel Riccardo found his Red Bull’s right rear brakes were on fire. As he retired, Red Bull’s engineers radioed Max Verstappen running in fifth place, to set his brake bias adjustment full front, immediately removing any chance Verstappen might have to pass another car. Little worry in hindsight as there were no car-to-car passes, as opposed to letting a fast competitor by, during the entire race.
Such is Sochi, where the track surface is so smooth and benign, that Pirelli’s Ultrasoft tyre meant for the mean streets of Monaco can last over two-thirds the race distance. These days, without your nearest competitor suffering reduced performance due to tire wear, there is little save the lack of power that enables one F1 car to overtake another for a position.
Vettel and his Ferrari engineers soon determined his only chance was to pressure Bottas to either overcook his tires or overheat his engine. He took station five seconds behind the Finn on lap 20, pushing and waiting.
There might have been snow on the mountains above Sochi, but on track, Lewis Hamilton was facing possible terminal overheating. By lap ten he had to ease his pace, although by lap 14 his engine situation had improved to borderline condition, meaning he could run but not race in close proximity. Told to back off, Hamilton circulated a lonely fourth, leading a similarly weakened Verstappen.
Vettel and his Ferrari engineers soon determined his only chance was to pressure Bottas to either overcook his tires or overheat his engine. He took station five seconds behind the Finn on lap 20, pushing and waiting. Bottas was in the groove until locking up his front left tyre under braking. By lap 26, his left front was blistered, and he pitted first to take on the alternate Supersoft tyre on lap 28. Vettel stayed out in the lead another seven laps, betting his worn Ultrasoft tyres could still be pushed to lap as fast as Bottas’ new but slower Supersofts. When Vettel pitted on lap 35, he returned to the track 4.3 seconds behind Bottas, with tires eight laps fresher.
The chase was on.
Bottas locked his fronts again on lap 38, with Vettel 2.7 seconds behind. On lap 40, Bottas’ in-car camera showed his tyres were vibrating his steering wheel as Vettel closed the distance to just 2.2 seconds behind, then down to 1.8 seconds on lap 41. Bottas was neither transmitting information to his team or complaining. The truth was, he was trying to determine just what Vettel was doing differently to cut into his lead. Bottas had never faced pressure like this as he led a four-time World Champion while attempting his first win; he was the point where he had to find his “extra gear”.
That gear was “silence.” He would relate later that he asked his engineers to stop talking in his ear so he could just relax and focus. It appears that was all he needed.
With just eight laps remaining of the 52, Bottas found that focus to keep Vettel within a 1.7 -1.1-second window. Even though Vettel’s tires were eight laps fresher that allowed the four-time champion to claw his way up to Bottas, the Finn controlled traffic beautifully. The last lap presented heavy traffic ahead for Bottas, but when he passed and then wedged his former Williams team mate Felipe Massa between him and Vettel, it was over.
The truth was, Bottas was trying to determine just what Vettel was doing differently to cut into his lead. He had never faced pressure like this as he led a four-time World Champion while attempting his first win.
At the line, it was Bottas by 0.6-seconds over Vettel, followed on the podium by Raikkonen making Sochi the first time two Finnish drivers stood on the podium since the 2008 Hungarian Grand Prix. Hamilton was fourth (a full 36-seconds in arrears), then Verstappen, with valuable points for Red Bull. The Force India duo of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon once again scored points, finishing sixth and seventh this time. Nico Hulkenberg captured eighth followed by Massa, relegated to ninth because of a slow puncture. Carlos Sainz took the final point for tenth in his Toro Rosso. To the relief of his William’s team, rookie Lance Stroll finally made the first finish of his F1 career.
“For the last 10 laps I was just asking for radio silence. I just wanted it to be a bit like home – nice and quiet. That way l could focus on my racing. I’m sure this victory will give me lots of confidence going forward. I knew I could do these results, I always trusted my ability, but this result confirms it.”
Now that he has found his pace, will Bottas lift Mercedes’ energy at the expense of Hamilton’s psyche? It must have surprised Hamilton that Bottas found victory so soon during a Grand Prix he would just as soon forget. Having won at this early point in the season, will Bottas ever readily agree to move over for Hamilton again?
Ferrari is showing they can command Grands Prix as long as Mercedes faces normal tyre wear. However, give Mercedes a chance to widen their admitted performance envelope just slightly, and they are Ferrari’s equal. Mercedes’ weakness so far this season has been its performance on the softest Pirelli tyre compounds, the Ultra Soft and the Super Soft, both of which featured in Sochi, a venue they have dominated since its inception. Was Bottas victory due in part to the low abrasion surface or possibly a new Mercedes battle plan? Now would be a good time for Ferrari to introduce some PU updates.
Pirelli need to look up the definition of the words ultra and super when added to soft; those tyre compounds are made of granite.
Statistically, Sochi was the ideal event for Valtteri Bottas’s first victory. It is his strongest track; he had never qualified lower than 3rd there and had a podium and a fourth with Williams. He was certainly highly motivated to bounce back from his disappointing race in Bahrain after taking his first pole position the day before.
The 2017 season is already a huge turnaround for both Ferrari drivers. Vettel has never led the championship in the turbo-hybrid-engine era. During his 2010-2013 title runs, Vettel never lost a championship once he had a chance to lead it. Further, by finishing third, team-mate Kimi Raikkonen took his first podium in 15 Grands Prix.
Now the F1 circus heads back to its original fan base in Europe for the Grand Prix of Spain, May 12-14.