When you really earn your spurs as a Grand Prix winner, you don’t do it with much greater credibility than when you soak up the intense challenge of a four-time world champion. Or when you leave a three-time world champion trailing 36.3s in your wake.
But that is exactly what Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas did in Sochi Autodrom this afternoon, as he resisted massive pressure from points leader Sebastian Vettel in the final 12 laps, and finished more than half a minute head of team-mate Lewis Hamilton whose car was troubled by intermittent overheating.
What began as a slow-burn race, became a cliff-hanging humdinger in the second half, and one of the best of what is already turning into a classic season as Bottas joined fellow countrymen Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen in the elite winners’ club in tremendous style.
There was drama even before the start when Fernando Alonso reported that his McLaren-Honda was not holding an electrical charge. When he was told to try various things the irritated Spaniard told his crew to try it themselves as he already had and nothing had worked. The orange and black car got as far as the pit lane entry on the grid formation lap before it rolled to a halt, necessitating a delayed start and causing a lap to be docked from the race’s intended 53. Bottas would be very grateful for that later on.
Then, as Bottas made a blinding start to overtake both of the Ferraris that had started on the front row of the grid, rookie Lance Stroll spun his Williams after contact with Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault, while further back Romain Grosjean clobbered Jolyon Palmer’s Renault, and both retired on the spot. Out came the safety car for three laps.
Bottas resumed comfortably as soon as the track went green again, and began to open the gap to Vettel. By lap 21 it was an easy 5.3s as the pit stop window loomed.
“Starting from the second row normally is not too bad here,” Bottas grinned, “and my start was good, slightly better than theirs, so I was able to slipstream down the inside going into the first turn. But I was happier with my restart when the Safety Car went in. That was great!”
“We were outdragged, basically,” said Vettel, who started from pole position. "I matched with Valtteri but he got a massive tow and tried to defend the inside, but as we approached the braking area he was already in front, so well done to him.”
But after those 21 laps a combination of traffic and Vettel speeding up saw the Ferrari driver beginning to close the deficit dramatically. When Bottas made his sole stop after 27 laps, to switch from the ultrasoft Pirelli tyres to the supersofts, it was down to 2.5s.
Ferrari then seemed in two minds how long to keep their man out. Initially they told Vettel to pit on the 33rd lap, before deciding on the 34th. His was a slow stop, due to the front left wheel sticking, and when he resumed he was second again and Bottas had a 4.6s lead.
“I guess our strategy didn’t work because I didn’t come out in the lead,” Vettel said. “But I had fresher tyres, and there was a gap to Kimi behind, so I was able to push as hard as possible and hope that he might get held up in the traffic. That was the plan, and I tried everything, but obviously we lost everything at the start.”
But, after his stop on the 29th lap, Vettel’s third placed team-mate Kimi Raikkonen had demonstrated the Ferrari threat by lapping a second faster than the Mercedes, and now we had a race at last as Vettel showed similar pace and he began slashing Bottas’ lead.
After 40 laps, with 12 to go, it was down to just 1.5s. Soon he would be within range to use his DRS system to attempt an overtaking move, and the closing laps were real nail-biters as they threaded their way through traffic.
Going into the final lap Vettel was only seven-tenths of a second behind. But keeping his nerve and lapping Felipe Massa’s Williams and leaving the German to follow the Brazilian through the long, fast Turn 4, Bottas got the break he needed and took a crucial victory for Mercedes by 0.6s.
“I was trying everything to catch Valtteri and looking for some opportunity on the back straight when we came up to Massa,” Vettel said, “and I was sure he would lift around Turn 3 and let me by, but I was not sure what he would do so I lost a bit of time there, but it but doesn’t matter. This is Valtteri’s day. He did a superb opening stint and I couldn’t stay with him, and he didn’t make any mistakes. He was the man of the race.”
Raikkonen was third, 10.3s behind, and never troubled by the very unhappy Hamilton who was such a distant fourth.
Vettel maintains his points lead, but Bottas has now come into play with 63.
"It’s a little bit surreal,” Bottas admitted of his success. “My first win, and hopefully the first of many. One of my best races ever. It’s a good feeling. I am just happy.
"To be honest the pressure at the end was okay. The main thing was the lapped cars and trying to get past those. With these new cars you definitely lose more downforce [behind others] and it is tricky to get close and pass them without losing time. I wasn’t happy on one or two occasions. And I had one brake lock-up about 15 laps from the finish.
“I did ask for more radio silence just for me to get on it and focus on it, and it was nice and quiet. That helped.
“I think this will give me confidence. I always knew I could do good results, but it is nice to get confirmation of that."
Not to mention to demonstrate it so convincingly to others.