Valtteri Bottas claimed his first Formula One victory, taking the flag at the Russian Grand Prix after a tense final few laps as he was chased down by Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who finished in second. Kimi Raikkonen took the final podium place with Lewis Hamilton able to claim only fourth, struggling with the temperature and performance of his car in Sochi.
The Finn, had started in third on the grid behind Vettel and Raikkonen but had the lead by turn two and despite a mighty charge by Vettel, who was on fresher rubber at the end, Bottas held his nerve with considerable skill to ensure he finally had his first race win, in his fourth race for Mercedes.
“It took quite a while,” Bottas said. “More than 80 races but worth the wait. Thanks so much to the team and the factory.”
Niki Lauda, Mercedes’s nonexecutive chairman, said: “To defend his position against a strong Ferrari, I can only say thank you very much.”
Vettel remains leader of the drivers’ championship, 13 points ahead of Hamilton, while Bottas has closed to within 10 points of his team-mate in third.
Bottas’s previous best results were two second places, at the British and German Grands Prix in 2014, for Williams. The Finn was third in Australia, sixth in China and third in Bahrain in the opening three meetings of the season. The victory also maintains the Mercedes stranglehold on Sochi: they remain the only team to have won the race since it was first held in 2014. Bottas’s previous best finish here was third in 2014.
The result was enough for Mercedes to overtake Ferrari in the constructors’ championship by a single point, 136 to 135.
The Finn enjoyed an exceptional start, launching off the line and then making the most of the advantage the Mercedes enjoys over the Ferrari in straight-line speed. He slipstreamed and passed Vettel on the long drag down to the first braking area at turn two and had the lead through the corner. Vettel slotted in behind, followed by Raikkonen and Hamilton.
After the safety car was deployed on the first lap when Jolyon Palmer in the Renault hit the Haas of Romain Grosjean at turn two, racing resumed on lap four and Bottas once more nailed the restart and quickly proved to have real pace out front, putting 1.8 seconds on Vettel’s Ferrari.
Hamilton, however, who has lost time through sector three all weekend, was doing so again and was more than five seconds back from the lead, telling his team he was suffering cutouts in power and lapping almost a second slower than his team-mate. Temperature problems with the car appeared to be compromising his performance. “Why is my car overheating? I am out of the race,” he said.
By lap 10 Bottas, who in contrast clearly had the car he wanted beneath him, had extended his lead to three seconds. Ferrari had been quicker over the weekend as a whole but on race day the Finn was proving to have a setup that was working to perfection and by lap 17 he had extended it further, to four and a half seconds. The close racing at the front that has been a feature of the previous rounds was not in evidence in Sochi, however, with the four leaders spread across 15 seconds.
Hamilton found a little more pace as the race progressed but Raikkonen was able to maintain his advantage of just over three seconds while Bottas, encountering traffic and also with high temperatures, was closed down by Vettel, who had the gap down to three and a half seconds by lap 26.
Mercedes opted to pit Bottas a lap later to take the supersoft tyres, while Vettel remained out, having slightly fresher rubber from qualifying. The German pushed but was also now in traffic, while Ferrari chose to pit Raikkonen first on lap 30.
Hamilton came in a lap later for the supersoft tyres but Vettel remained out, able to match Bottas despite the Finn’s new rubber and the team only chose to bring him in on lap 35. Ferrari were looking to an alternate strategy – he now had the freshest tyres of the leaders to go to the end and emerged 4.8 seconds behind Bottas.
With the only stops of the race completed, Hamilton could do nothing to catch the front three and he remained off the pace of his team-mate, still having to manage his car’s temperatures. However Bottas was feeling the pressure of sensing his first win and he went wide at turn 13 and locked up on lap 38, leaving his left front with a flat spot. Vettel promptly came after him, cutting the lead to just under two seconds on lap 40.
The German, maximising his new boots, went after the Finn with abandon and with 10 laps remaining he had him in his sights, being only one and a half seconds behind. It proved to be a tense finale but the Finn held his nerve as Vettel came at him, ensured he made no more mistakes despite the pressure and was inch-perfect for the remainder of the race, taking the flag 0.6 seconds clear.
Max Verstappen was fifth in the Red Bull but his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo suffered a right-rear brake fire and had to retire on lap six. The Force Indias of Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon were sixth and seventh respectively; Nico Hülkenberg did well to put his Renault into eighth, with the Williams of Felipe Massa in ninth and the Toro Rosso of Carlos Sainz Jr in 10th.
McLaren suffered yet another blow in an already woeful season in which they have still not scored any points. Fernando Alonso, who has still to complete a race in 2017, suffered a hybrid problem while on the grid and he stopped his car on the formation lap unable to take any further part. His team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne finished in 14th.