Firstly apologies for this relatively late column; our British bank holiday, an afternoon’s appointment, my suitcase not making its connection in Moscow are among the excuses. But it’s certainly a column I want to write, if only to celebrate a new winner to the world of Formula One in the shape of Valtteri Bottas.
Some of us having been watching this Finn for some time. My younger son worked with him at Williams and very much appreciated his friendship and professionalism; Valtteri still inquires after him, even though he left Williams 18 months ago.
Valtteri has always been a straight, level but approachable guy and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. However, I remember him on course to put the Williams on pole at Sochi a year or two ago, and then running wide out of the final corner which scuppered his chances. He ended up third – but then he’s always ended up third at Sochi; he’s never qualified anywhere else in Russia, including last Saturday.
And of course, he had the coming together with Kimi Raikkonen at turn four late in the race in 2015. Maybe those memories also prompted Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari engineer to encourage his driver to stay close in Sunday’s race for if or when Valtteri made a mistake.
Of course Valtteri didn’t. Instead he had the luck and judgement to use the DRS as he wished with his teammate Felipe Massa providing the ultimate foil to Sebastian Vettel’s charge. Sure, Felipe might have pulled over a bit earlier to allow Sebastian past, but he did what he had to do, and perhaps he was mindful of his position on the circuit. He’d already been overtaken by his ex-teammate so he knew who was in front…
Sebastian had every right to feel a little aggrieved about being held up by the Brazilian and while the German swiftly acknowledged that it was Valtteri’s day, Felipe noted that ‘Sebastian likes to complain.’ This was an amusing postscript to an exchange at the end of the pole position press conference the previous day, when an Italian journalist pointed out that both Ferrari drivers had had to change their turbochargers. “You’re the only Italian in the world that finds a reason to be negative,” said Sebastian, later adding “I think you will have a great chance to get a German passport because usually Germans always find a reason to complain. If there’s a hard time when you get back to Italy you’re welcome to Germany!”
Well, the only German complaining at Mercedes was probably Lewis Hamilton’s race engineer. The Briton finished 36s behind his teammate after 52 laps of racing on a circuit on which only Mercedes have ever won and on which he himself had been on pole once and won twice. The driver was constantly warned of overheating – which also applied to Bottas – but also complained of handling problems.
Mercedes are more prone to track temperatures than Ferrari, but if we look at the races so far, Ferrari won in Melbourne where the track temperature at the start was 36 degrees. Mercedes won at Shanghai where the track temperature was a lowly 15 degrees at the start; it was Ferrari again in Bahrain where it was 30 degrees at the start; and Mercedes again in Sochi, 39 degrees at the start. There’s no real logic to that yet, although Ferrari were obviously the faster car in the closing stages of the latest race, considering Vettel’s fightback and Raikkonen’s 45th career fastest race lap, his second of the year.
With Kimi Raikkonen seemingly unable to challenge his teammate on race pace – in spite of the Sochi improvement – this was almost the ideal result that Sebastian Vettel needed. He would have been delighted that Hamilton had been relegated to fourth and that Valtteri had shown that he could beat him. So Vettel’s ideal finishing order would be Vettel, then the two Finns and then Hamilton, who surely rates as Sebastian’s main rival. While Bottas scooped maximum points, Vettel would have been happy that he got the next most and that of the championship rivals, Hamilton got the least.
It was a thrilling end to an otherwise lacklustre race. Sadly, Red Bull were not really in the hunt. After Daniel Ricciardo’s brake problems, Verstappen faded badly to a distant fifth place, best of the rest. All hopes are now pinned on a major update coming at the next race.
Verstappen was even beaten to sixth on the grid by Felipe Massa but the Brazilian suffered two slow punctures which left him ninth. Felipe now seems quicker than either of the Force India drivers who once again had an excellent race with the stick-thin Esteban Ocon – he apparently eats like a horse – scoring his best ever result behind teammate Sergio Perez, sixth and seventh. Massa is fighting a lone battle with the Force India guys this year but his teammate did at least finish in eleventh place.
It was good to see Nico Hulkenberg get some points – they’ve deserved them even though the car is slow in a straightline. By Sebastian Vettel’s rules, Romain Grosjean could well qualify for German citizenship as Haas’s choice of brakes still attracts endless complaints. Magnussen seems more satisfied.
And as for Fernando Alonso, he is attracting loads and loads of publicity for apparently wrestling a poor racing car around a track, parking it at the entrance to the pit lane – it would have started if it had made it back to the pits – then flying off to the States to do his much-publicised Indy rookie tests. His teammate, meanwhile, became the first driver to be penalised for the use of a fifth power unit element, this after just three races. There are many more to come and you might well get fed up with them.
Meanwhile, there are lots of other little changes in Formula One at the moment, which you may or may not notice. Liberty Media can only change little things currently – there are too many contracts in place elsewhere – but most of these changes are for the better and in many cases they are a freeing of restrictions placed by the previous administration. Being an American company, they are attracting their own restrictions as I mentioned in my preview column but most other signs are positive so far; there’s a lot more to come.
By Bob Constanduros