Valtteri Bottas is targeting the Formula One world championship, after securing his first win at the Russian Grand Prix on Sunday. The Finn held off a determined push from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to take victory, while his Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton was back in fourth.
The win at Sochi came in the 27-year-old’s 81st start and has ensured he is very much in the championship fight. Vettel, on 86 points, leads Hamilton by 13 but Bottas is only 10 behind his team-mate on 63 and while discussion before Russia centered on whether team orders would be imposed to favour Hamilton, the win has only strengthened Bottas’s resolve to pursue the title.
He was congratulated by Hamilton, Vettel and his Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen after the victory but while relations between them are still friendly he does not envision any quarter being given while racing. “It’s going to be a long year, with a lot of fighting,” he said. “At some point it might get a bit more tricky and tight. If and when it comes to the championship fight there might be less talking and more fighting on track.”
Bottas had a mixed start to the season, having been recruited by Mercedes from Williams in January to replace the world champion Nico Rosberg who retired after wining the title last year. The Finn was third in Australia, sixth in China and third in Bahrain in the opening three meetings. A spin behind the safety car in Shanghai raised questions about his ability to step up and, after a tyre pressure issue in Bahrain, he was given instructions to let Hamilton past, prompting the team orders debate. However he did claim pole at Sakhir and followed it by comprehensively out-qualifying Hamilton in Russia. The subsequent win gives him further impetus to achieve more, he believes.
“If you don’t think you can win, you should stay at home,” he said. “But to get confirmation, to get that first result, that matters. The races you win and the times you are on the podium is the name of the game. Getting that first win gives you a lot of confidence that you can do it, even though I always knew I had the ability. Now I just want to do it again. It’s not going to that simple this year, it’s going to be a massive fight.”
Hamilton had an uncharacteristically poor weekend, unable to find the right setup for his car at the Sochi Autodrom. He struggled to bring the tyres into their operating window during practice, could not find the balance in qualifying and suffered from engine overheating during the race. The temperature issues were causing one of his cylinders to cut out and he believed he was losing at least seven-tenths a lap.
However, the three-time world champion, who suffered with mechanical failures last year when he lost the title to Rosberg, did not believe the issues were fundamental to the car. “This weekend was not reliability” he said. “It was pure pace on the car – the tyres, tyre temperatures, being comfortable in the car. There is no reason for me to have any worry of reliability because we have the strongest reliability so far.”
His problems were exacerbated by Bottas, who had tuned in his car over the weekend to perfection. The team’s executive director Toto Wolff has already confirmed Mercedes will investigate what was causing Hamilton’s difficulties. “I can’t explain it right now, but I will do some work over this week to fully understand it,” said Hamilton. “I have some theories about how it felt in the race and qualifying, some ideas, but lots of work will be done to figure it out.”
Last season the relationship between Rosberg and Hamilton became increasingly fractious and Mercedes have since admitted it was detrimental to the team. However, despite the bullish talk from Bottas, Wolff remains confident that the two drivers, whom he has described before as having no baggage with one another, will remain friendly.
“The relationship between the two is very intact,” he said. “Lewis was one of the first to congratulate Valtteri, nevertheless they are fierce competitors and want to win races and fight for the championship. But I don’t think it will affect the relationship and dynamics between the team like it did over the last few years between Nico and Lewis. That was a completely different relationship.”