Making your debut against Lewis Hamilton is always going to be tough, especially with a late team change prior to the new season. But Valtteri Bottas deserves credit for holding his own in Melbourne in what was a strong debut for Mercedes.
At the end of Friday, Bottas was half a second adrift of Hamilton and alarm bells were ringing amongst a few people. Even though it was always going to be an uphill struggle in Australia for the Finn, many were surprised at how far adrift of Hamilton he was. The gap had only looked to be a couple of tenths in testing, but come qualifying, things looked much better. He was faster than Hamilton in Q1 and Q2 and whilst didn’t get onto the front row in qualifying he still got within three tenths of Hamilton. It was a very solid performance for Bottas and it pleased Toto Wolff as well.
“Third position is not ideal, in general I am not happy for the result.
What I am happy about, what I am proud about is what team has done with this car. I only saw a small part of the preparation with new car and new era of F1, but it is nice to see how the work is paying off at the front, it seems to be close this year.”
“I always put very high targets but I think that works for me,” Bottas said. “That makes me work harder, I haven’t this weekend felt any negatives on myself, it’s only good for me to think of my weaknesses and strengths.”
The race was of course the crucial day and it didn’t look to good during the opening stint. He had a good start and challenged Vettel into turn one but that was it. Whilst he initially ran Hamilton and Vettel close he started to drop off, albeit pull away from Raikkonen at the same time. The Finn was experiencing overheating issues with his ultra soft tyres despite deliberately not getting too close to Vettel so as to avoid this issue. He did make his tyres last longer than Hamilton and after the stop, his pace was on fire. He chose the moment to strike Hamilton perfectly. The British driver lost out to Vettel in the stops and appeared to be eating his tyres as he attempted to pass Verstappen and catch Vettel, who was building a gap up front. Bottas was rapidly closing on his teammate and was over a second quicker in the final stint. It was highly impressive to see him reel in a driver as celebrated as Lewis Hamilton and show the flashes of pace he had at Williams. Whilst he didn’t get close enough to pass Hamilton, he did get within two seconds at the finish.
It was a quality drive from a man who had been under so much pressure. Bottas was disappointed at not being able to fight for the win but recognised that it was still a great debut after an eventful winter. It was encouraging how much he could close on Hamilton after practice and it shows he is getting up to speed rather quickly in his new surroundings. If he can keep doing that, expect him to become a real thorn in Hamilton’s side before to long. This season may not just be a battle of silver and red concerning only two drivers.