Formula 1 visited Russia last weekend for the fourth round of the 2017 season. The whole race around the Sochi Autodrom was a tense, tight affair, with Valtteri Bottas ultimately emerging victorious for Mercedes.
Given how close the margins were at the front of the race, it was understandable that that was where most of the focus was, especially given the fact that the result was in doubt right until the final moment. However, there was a variety of things to notice up and down the grid in Sochi…
V is for Victory and Valtteri
In Russia, Valtteri Bottas joined the select and illustrious list of racing drivers who have won a Grand Prix. The Finn is only the 107th driver since the Formula 1 World Championship began in 1950 to win a race, and only the 5th driver from Finland to do so. By all accounts, Bottas’ efforts in Russia were outstanding. He was rapid in qualifying and left teammate Lewis Hamilton firmly in the shade, ultimately losing out to the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel by less than a tenth of a second.
Race day, however, was a different matter. Bottas launched his Silver Arrow off the line like lightning from his P3 grid spot and zoomed away into the lead as the pack entered Turn Two. His pace in the first stint was unparalleled, and Ferrari were forced to try something different with Vettel’s strategy in an attempt to stop the Silver Finn. Vettel came back strongly and piled the pressure on the Mercedes man, but one small wobble aside, Bottas was ice cool under pressure and crossed the line less than a second ahead of the German.
After the disappointment of Bahrain, a win in Russia was the perfect response from the Finn. It was a hard-fought, fair and square win, and it cements the fact that he deserves his chance in top machinery.
— FOX Sports F1 (@FOXSportsF1) April 30, 2017
More good than bad for Ferrari
On the face of it, it may seem that Ferrari would be a little disappointed with their Russian race. After all, a 1-2 start turned into a 2-3 finish. However, given the specific conditions surrounding the weekend, including the fact that the Sochi Autodrom isn’t particularly tough on tyres, the Scuderia can be pleased.
It was expected that Mercedes would bounce back strongly in Russia, and while they did win, Ferrari were equal to them for all intents and purposes. The Spanish Grand Prix, which is next up, is likely to suit the red cars more than the silver, thanks to the warm temperatures and substantial tyre wear.
The Ferrari remains more gentle on its tyres than the Mercedes, and that could play into their hands in Spain. The win may have escaped from Vettel, but he did gain extend his advantage over Lewis Hamilton, his nearest rival. On the whole, while the battle may have gone the way of Bottas, Ferrari can feel pleased about the overall direction of the 2017 Formula 1 war at this point.
Raikkonen gets it right
To say that Kimi Raikkonen started 2017 in an unconvincing fashion would be to be polite. While teammate Sebastian Vettel won two of the opening three races, the Finn seemed to be stumbling from one uninspiring session to the next. In Russia, however, the Ferrari veteran produced a far more positive performance.
By his own admission, Raikkonen was far more comfortable in the car in Russia than he was before, and it showed. He so nearly grabbed pole, and displayed some rapid pace in the second half of Sunday’s race. Perhaps Raikkonen is no longer the lightning-fast Iceman that electrified the world in years gone by, but a well-executed Russian weekend was a reminder of the unique talent that he possesses.
It is already obvious that the focus at Ferrari will be on a title bid from lead driver Vettel, but Raikkonen’s services as rear-gunner will be invaluable. He may not be fast enough anymore to mix it up in the title fight, but a fast, motivated, comfortable Raikkonen will be critical if Ferrari are to stand up against the dominance of Mercedes for the rest of the season.
Hamilton needs to respond in Spain
What a difference two weeks makes. After being pipped to pole position by Valtteri Bottas in Bahrain, Lewis Hamilton firmly stamped his authority on the race by leaving the Finn trailing. In Russia, however, the shoe was firmly on the other foot. Bottas generally seemed to be the happier Silver Arrow driver during practice, and left the Briton behind by a healthy 0.4 seconds in qualifying.
While it must be said that Hamilton had some car trouble in the race, Bottas never looked back and charged to victory while the three-time champion never looked like he could join the fight at the front. Hamilton remains ten points ahead of Bottas in the standings, but the Finn is certainly riding a bit of a wave of late.
The Briton is still likely to be the one that ultimately bids for the title, but he will have to respond in Spain to ensure that isolated moments of success for Bottas do not turn into a trend. One thing is clear: Bottas has not come to Mercedes to roll over and let Hamilton have it all his own way. If the Finn keeps turning in rapid laps, he has every chance of upsetting Hamilton and starting a fierce battle within the German outfit’s ranks.
Consistency pays off for Force India
Force India ended 2016 as the fourth-fastest package overall, a fact which showed as they pipped Williams to fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship. The Silverstone-based squad had ambitions to continue their fine form into 2017, but it seemed that their rivals from Grove had produced a quicker overall package. In the opening four races of the 2017 season, Williams (and in particular, Felipe Massa) have demonstrated more raw pace and generally qualified higher up the grid than Force India.
— Sahara Force India (@ForceIndiaF1) April 30, 2017
However, Force India remain one of only three teams (the other being Mercedes and Ferrari) to bring both cars home in the points at every race so far. Over at Williams, by contrast, Lance Stroll has yet to score a top-ten finish, which has left Massa to carry the team alone.
Indeed, the Brazilian has scored all 18 of Williams’ points. While Sergio Perez has also contributed the bulk of Force India’s points (22 out of their total of 31) he has been ably assisted by rookie Esteban Ocon, who has been consistent and has kept out of trouble. Force India may not have the raw pace of Williams for the moment, but their consistency and the solid efforts of both Perez and Ocon have seen them eke out a small but useful lead over their closest rival.
Overtaking isn’t the be all and end all
After the excitement dished up by both China and Bahrain, the race at Sochi may have seemed a little dull, and indeed, there was little to get excited about on the overtaking front.
However, that does not mean that the race wasn’t exciting. Ferrari and Mercedes served up a grand duel that ebbed and flowed right up until the chequered flag. Since the introduction of DRS in 2011, the sheer number of overtaking attempts has come to be a synonym for the overall excitement of the race. Russia proved that an overtake a minute isn’t necessary to produce a captivating race. Sometimes, all you need is some good old nail-biting tension.
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