Massa or not, Bottas was class act

We’ve had four very different tracks and temperatures, and it’s certainly game on between Ferrari and Mercedes with two wins each. Red Bull aren’t in the hunt, but they’re talking of bringing a lot of updates in Barcelona, as will everyone else. What we see there will define what we’ll see in the next five or six races.

Valtteri Bottas celebrates on the podium after posting the first win of his career at the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi.   -  REUTERS

I’ll be the first to concede that the Russian Grand Prix wasn’t the most exciting race in the world. The surface of the track in Sochi is really odd and this means that the tyres don’t really wear out, and this had led to processional racing over the past four years. The result though was really good. I was very, very happy to see Valtteri Bottas post the first win of his career. He’s a great guy, and never gives up.

When you look at how his season has gone, beginning with the surprise drive at Mercedes over the winter, he was a little bit shaky early on in Melbourne but has settled down and really caught up with Lewis Hamilton. China was a terrible race for Bottas as he spun behind the safety car. However, the way he bounced back in Bahrain and took the pole position showed great tenacity. Bottas had a bad race and really didn’t have the pace, so he had to let Lewis past.

There were lots of stories asking if he’ll just become a number two, but in Russia Bottas delivered a flawless performance. He was quicker than Lewis all weekend; in qualifying he was really impressive. The gap to Lewis was always four or five tenths, which is big to be faster than Lewis Hamilton, one of the best drivers of his generation.

Then to take the lead from the Ferraris from the line, he absolutely blitzed it. At the end Bottas was 36 seconds ahead of Lewis — I had to double check that. Lewis had engine troubles and ran in a lower power mode, but I don’t think that accounts for such a large deficit. Bottas should be really proud of himself for the way he kept his cool despite being under pressure from Sebastian Vettel. Hopefully, it will kick start a run where the Finn could genuinely turn himself into a championship contender.

It was a typically enigmatic performance from Kimi Raikkonen. If you look at the sector times from qualifying, he had the potential to be on pole. In the end, he was half-a-tenth down in qualifying and little further back in the race — 11s. I think Kimi realised he didn’t have the chance to fight for the win. Overall, I think this was a sign that Kimi and Valtteri could play a role in this championship battle, which could be fascinating.

I thought there was a lot of noise about Felipe Massa on the final lap of the race, that he didn’t let Vettel through, and had he been allowed to go through, Vettel would have had a go at passing Bottas. I don’t believe it for a second. Bottas had Turn 2 covered, which is the big overtaking spot. There are a couple of others, but I think he was ahead far enough. We shouldn’t take anything away from Bottas by playing up the role of Massa on the final lap.

You have to pick your way through the traffic; you can’t rely on blue flags. Yes, Massa could have made it easier, but at the end of the day, I still think Bottas would have won. He did the donkey-work in the early part of the race, he was ahead five and a half seconds and the Ferrari had no answer in the first stint. They tried to do something different, by going long and trying to give Vettel fresher tyres. If there had been a safety car that would have helped him; they tried to be innovative. In reality, Bottas had track position and pace. With those, you’re in control and it was his race to lose.

Lewis had a sub-par weekend by his own account. He talked about it afterwards; he wasn’t happy all weekend. We tried to speak privately with people at Mercedes and to understand, and to also look at the video. I did a bit of analysis of Lewis versus Vettel from qualifying by looking at the on-board video, and you could see in the last sector of the lap that Lewis was asking for a lot of grip from the front end that wasn’t there. Mercedes clearly didn’t have the performance over the final sector. But Bottas did a better job of coping with it: Lewis tried to attack the corners and push on, whereas Valtteri mentally had the attitude of ‘we don’t have the grip, I’m just going to hold back and under-drive the front end.’ The surface of the track is so unique that it favours a driver that does that.

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton drives out of the pit lane during the Russian Grand Prix. The multiple World champion had a sub-par weekend by his own account.   -  REUTERS

 

There were lots of talk about trying to switch on the front tyres and drivers unable to light them up. I think that favours someone who is willing to sacrifice the entry speed a little bit, holding off to get the apex and exit — Valtteri was better than Lewis at that. He’s also always been good at Sochi, even at Williams, because he’s good at under-driving the front end. Force India got a great result, but it was a little bit lucky because of Felipe Massa’s slow puncture. He looked well on course for sixth place behind Max Verstappen, the Williams showing again that it’s a very good car. He even qualified between the Red Bulls. I believe it was not one but two slow punctures that caused him to stop twice, so his first pit-stop was early. It’s odd, because it’s not a circuit where we normally see punctures.

Nico Hulkenberg had a good race having qualified strongly, which we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the last few races. Normally Renault struggles with race pace, but not during the Russian Grand Prix weekend and his tyre management was really good — he did the longest stint on the ultra-soft tyres at something like 42 laps. That was a very good effort.

The first four races should be taken as one when looking at the form. We’ve had four very different tracks and temperatures, and it’s certainly game on between Ferrari and Mercedes with two wins each.

Red Bull aren’t in the hunt, but they’re talking of bringing a lot of updates in Barcelona, as will everyone else. What we see there will define what we’ll see in the next five or six races.

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