Whilst the race itself wasn’t a classic, it was a defining moment in Valtteri Bottas’ career as a Formula 1 driver. Ferrari had the better car this weekend, but the Finn was in his own league and picked up his first career victory at his 81st attempt.
After the opening three races, it was starting to look like Bottas was in a similar boat to Kimi Raikkonen, both Finns being dubbed as number two drivers. In Sochi, Bottas finished the race in style, absorbing pressure from the chasing Vettel and ending up 36-seconds ahead of Hamilton, that’s the number that should encourage Toto Wolff to start thinking about extending Bottas’ contract.
Before the start of the race, Fernando Alonso’s McLaren came to a halt. It was quite embarrassing on top of what has already been a difficult weekend and season. Alonso wasn’t even angry, it was just clear dejection as he slowly wandered down the pit lane.
At the start, Valtteri Bottas was able to jump both Ferraris and lead into the first corner. Lewis Hamilton defended 4th from the Red Bulls behind and a conservative braking point into the first corner prevented him from challenging Raikkonen ahead.
Further back, Jolyon Palmer and Romain Grosjean collided as the Renault driver turned in on a Haas car that refused to vanish into thin air, although Grosjean was more than optimistic, almost gullible in sticking his nose up the inside. It looked like a racing incident, albeit a sloppy one that condemns both drivers to a difficult start this season. Later in the first lap Stroll spun by himself, but kept it out of the wall and in the race.
Daniel Ricciardo found himself out of the race early on too, his rear right brake was overheating and ended up retiring the Aussie, who was on for a fight with his teammate in the race, Verstappen’s pace was nowhere near the top four as the race developed.
The running order that remained for the opening 20 laps was:
Bottas, Vettel, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Verstappen, Massa, Perez, Ocon, Hulkenberg, Magnussen, Sainz, Kvyat, Stroll, Vandoorne, Ericsson, Wehrlein. Bottas was able to build a five-second gap at this point.
Felipe Massa was one of the first drivers to pit on lap 23 and was out on fresh rubber in 10th. It was crucial that the Brazilian got a strong result for Williams with both Force Indias on for points and Stroll looking unlikely to get into the top ten at this point in the race.
It was emerging that the race wasn’t going to be a classic, with little on track action. On lap 27, Bottas and Vettel encountered traffic and the trailing German was making a better job of getting by, he clawed his way through the slower cars and got within three seconds of Bottas, but the leaders were due a stop and the Finn boxed at the end of the lap.
Bottas reemerged in 4th and it was clear that Vettel picked up the pace and was trying the match Bottas on older rubber so he would have an advantage on fresh rubber in the closing stages of the race.
Surprisingly, Ferrari opted to keep Vettel out and bring Raikkonen in for new tyres instead, meaning that the gap between Vettel and Bottas was 19-seconds, not enough to pit and stay ahead of the Finn. There was also the danger of Kimi Raikkonen getting into 2nd, he started to put in some fastest laps on the Supersofts and reduced the gap to 28-seconds. The average time for a pit-stop in Sochi was 26-seconds.
On lap 40, Vettel started to catch Bottas following a pitstop on lap 35 and the Finn going deep into turn 12 didn’t help. On lap 41, Hulkenberg made his first stop from 6th and reemerged in 9th with very fresh tyres. He would chase down the Force Indias ahead to try and get a strong result for Renault.
A slow puncture on the Williams demoted Massa from 6th to 9th on lap 43, it gave Force India a much better chance at building a gap in the Constructors.
At the front, the gap was tittering around the one-second mark between Bottas and Vettel, but Bottas was doing a superb job at managing the gap. Hamilton wasn’t making the progress he would have wanted, he was sixteen seconds behind Kimi Raikkonen in 3rd.
Bottas held on and picked up a compelling victory, Vettel crossed the line 0.6seconds behind the winning Mercedes, with Raikkonen completing the podium. Hamilton had a difficult race and will be wondering why his teammate was able to pull out such a margin over him. The 36-second gap is significant, it isn’t a regular occurrence for a driver in the same machinery to pull that sort of gap over the Brit. Bottas really made a point today.
Verstappen finished the race a lonely 5th, 26-seconds behind Hamilton but a comfortable 24-seconds ahead of Sergio Perez, who once again led a double points finish for Force India with his teammate Esteban Ocon clinching his best result so far in Formula 1 with 7th. The new Force India driver endured pressure from the team’s ex-driver in Nico Hulkenberg, who finished a second behind for 8th place after pulling off a late stop strategy and bringing in more crucial points for the French manufacturer in a tight midfield fight.
Felipe Massa will be disappointed with 9th. He was on for another strong 6th place finish before a slow puncture in the later stages of the race forced him into an extra pit-stop. Sainz rounded out the top ten in a race that looked like Toro Rosso’s biggest challenge to score points so far this season following a Qualifying session in which neither STR12 was able to break into Q3.
Lance Stroll finally got that crucial race finish, but the spin early on prevented what could have also been the occasion for some first Formula 1 points. Daniil Kvyat could only manage 12th at his home race.
Kevin Magnussen was 13th, with Vandoorne, Ericsson and Wehrlein bringing up the rear of the finishers.
The race itself wasn’t a classic, with hardly any overtakes, but there was a fight for the win and the battle between Bottas and Vettel salvaged what would have been a dull affair if there had been any form of dominance at the front.
The biggest thing to take away from this race has to be the momentum gained on Bottas’ side of the Silver Arrows garage. His performance was heroic, and he has dragged himself up to 3rd in the Driver standings, only ten points adrift of his teammate. Vettel’s fourth consecutive podium and second place finish see’s the German extend his lead to 13-points. Hamilton will brush off this weekend, he isn’t one to focus on negativity.
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 30, 2017