Valtteri Bottas: Is Russia Grand Prix win start of things to come?
First grand prix victories do not come much better than this. Valtteri Bottas was imperious at the Russian Grand Prix as he took his maiden win in his 81st start and confirmed himself as a major player in this fascinating Formula 1 season.
There were so many impressive aspects of the Finn's weekend that it is hard to know where to start. Crushing team-mate Lewis Hamilton in a manner rarely seen, and then soaking up intense pressure in the race from four-time champion Sebastian Vettel despite a damaged front tyre are definite highlights.
Hamilton was anonymous around the former Olympic buildings on the Black Sea coast, slipping into one of those bizarrely off-form weekends he has from time to time.
But Bottas' win depended on so much more than beating Hamilton. He saw off the threat from the Ferraris, who had been strong favourites for victory before the start, in a manner that suggests this will not be the last time this quiet, low-key and likeable man will stand atop a podium this season.
The Finn is the third winner in four races this year and the championship is nicely poised for the start of the European phase of the season in Spain in two weeks' time. Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel is leading the standings by 13 points from Hamilton, and Bottas is only 10 points behind his team-mate.
Bottas comes of age
It was always going to be a matter of time before Bottas won his first race once he had moved to Mercedes over the winter as a replacement for Nico Rosberg, who retired five days after winning the title last year.
The question, assuming Mercedes remained competitive, was not whether he would win - the ebb and flow of a grand prix season meant that was inevitable. It was how close he could get to Hamilton on a regular basis.
Four races in, after three weekends of clear superiority for Hamilton and one in which he was off-form, it is too early to answer that question definitively.
But Russia proved that Bottas is exactly what Mercedes wanted - at the very least a like-for-like replacement for Rosberg who can push the Briton close and win races in his own right.
Bottas has always liked the Sochi track and he was by far the most convincing Mercedes driver through the weekend. The Finn qualified 0.478secs ahead of his illustrious team-mate, and his drive in the race was masterful.
A good start, a slipstream from Vettel's Ferrari down the one-kilometre run to the first corner and Bottas was far enough ahead, not only to pass into the first chicane, but be sufficiently ahead to block the red car while doing it.
Bottas' first stint was highly impressive as he set a pace too hot for Vettel to match, albeit that he lost some ground from lap 20 onwards when the German found the balance of his Ferrari coming back to him and the Finn began to encounter traffic.
The Ferrari was faster in the second stint and Vettel began to turn the screw. Bottas' one error was a lock-up into Turn 13 which damaged both front tyres and cut his lead by more than a second in one lap.
It could have proved a turning point, and although Vettel caught him up, Bottas controlled the race from the front like a veteran.
Vettel was just one of many people who were impressed, and he paid fulsome tribute afterwards.
"It's his day; he deserves to win," Vettel said. "He drove a fantastic race. I think he locked up once into Turn 13 but other than that, superb race. Great first stint. He was a lot quicker than Lewis all weekend, so you just have to give credit to him. He was just better than all the rest of us today."
Bottas himself admitted it was "going to take a while" for it to sink in.
"I have to say, normally I'm not that emotional," he said, "but hearing the Finnish national anthem is something quite special for me - it felt good. But it is a little bit surreal: first win, and hopefully first of many. It was definitely one of my best races, personally, ever. It's a good feeling."
What does it mean for Bottas?
Four years with Williams had proved Bottas to be a very solid competitor, but there are always questions over drivers before they really go up against the A-listers in a front-running car.
It has not been the easiest of starts to his Mercedes career. A solid debut in Australia was followed by an embarrassing spin behind the safety car in China followed by a fundamental lack of pace in Bahrain after a first pole the day before.
Bottas entered the Russia weekend surrounded by questions about whether Mercedes needed to designate a firm number one and two to counter the threat from Ferrari, and then heard his team say they would impose orders if one driver was slower than the other in a race and it was affecting the team's chances of victory.
But there is a quiet solidity and unflappability about Bottas and he answered the doubters in emphatic style.
"It is only the beginning of the year," he said, when asked how he had coped with China and Bahrain. "It is always difficult to draw conclusions on how the season is so that's why I wasn't too worried with the gap to the front.
"It was 30 points or something, and that sort of gap has gone in the past in just a few races so it's way too early to look at that championship in detail. We are just focusing on making the car better and that will give us more wins for both cars.
"Getting the first win is something special, for sure, even though you always believe in yourself. If you think you are not able to win you should stay home, but to get confirmation and get a good result, that matters in this world.
"How many races you can win and get on the podium is the name of the game. Getting the first win gives me a lot of confidence even though I always knew I had the ability. It is not that simple this year. It's going to always be a massive fight."
Hamilton off the boil
For all Bottas' impressive performance in Russia, he was made to look better by what appears to have been a difficult weekend for Hamilton in which he never got himself in the ballpark.
For all his talent, this happens to Hamilton from time to time - think back to Baku and Singapore last year.
In both cases, for very different reasons, he had poor weekends and at this early stage it appears Russia 2017 was more like Singapore, where he was never on the pace, than Baku, where he simply messed up by driving badly.
Hamilton was not comfortable with the car all weekend in Sochi.
Both Mercedes drivers were struggling on Friday, unable to get the ultra-soft tyres up to the right temperature on a flying lap. But whereas Bottas and his engineers recovered overnight into Saturday, and he missed out on pole by less than 0.1secs, Hamilton remained at sea.
"It was just pure pace based on car, tyres, tyre temperatures and being comfortable in the car," Hamilton said following his debrief with the engineers after the race.
"There were differences in car set-ups", he said, adding: "But they were not huge, quite close - a little different in low, and medium-speed corners, which is where I struggled. And then on the electronic side, the differential, those kind of things, we were a little bit different.
"I don't know the fine details. The engineers will give me a full summary. The direction he was able to go in, I wasn't able to, and I don't understand fully why. I'm not sure what else in the car was stopping me going in that direction."
Team boss Toto Wolff added: "I think there was more wrong than one topic. He [Hamilton] felt he couldn't make the car and the tyres function so we need to find out.
"We know it is very difficult to keep the tyres in the right window and it is something we have to work on because the Ferrari seems to struggle less, the window is larger [for them] and he wasn't in the window, whether it was tyre-specific or something on the car we need to find out."
Most people expect Hamilton, over the balance of the season, to remain the more consistently strong Mercedes driver. But Bottas' performance in Russia has told him, if he did not know before, that he faces a challenge at least as great as that from Rosberg over the last three years.
And a challenge is very much what Mercedes have as a team from a rejuvenated Ferrari.