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View from the Pit Lane: Russia

A lightning start from Bottas and a mega first stint laid the foundations for his first F1 win
By Karun Chandhok
C4F1 technical analyst

The Russian Grand Prix may not have been the most exciting race in the world – I think we’re all agreed on that one – but the end result was fantastic for Valtteri Bottas and the championship chase ahead. 

I was very happy to see Bottas get the first Grand Prix win of his career. He’s a great guy, works hard and never gives up – he’s already proved that by his up-and-down start to 2017.

While Bottas basked from the top step of the podium, the C4F1 team were basking in the amazing weather in Sochi for our second live race weekend. 

It’s a beautiful resort with snow-capped mountains in the distance and the Black Sea coast near the track.  You can see why so many Russian tourists come to spend their holidays here. 

We also had Eddie Jordan making the trip to Sochi for the first time this season with all the usual entertainment and chaos that his presence brings. He certainly raised a few eyebrows in our office and the paddock when he announced the McLaren-Mercedes deal for 2018! 

I had quite a busy time in the pit lane because the track surface, and the way it affects the tyres, is unique to Sochi. There was a lot of head-scratching for the teams. 

The atmosphere among the teams was very much ‘let’s get through this one and see how the land lies before we get the updates for Barcelona’. 

Bottas bounces back

Bottas has shown great tenacity since his surprise drive at Mercedes was announced over the winter. 

On his Merc debut at the Australian Grand Prix, he was a little bit shaky early on in the race but settled down in the second stint and really caught up to Lewis Hamilton by the end. 

China was a terrible race for him, especially when he spun under the safety car, but the way he bounced back and claimed his first-ever pole in Bahrain showed great tenacity. Unfortunately, he went on to have a bad race, he just didn’t have the pace, and had to let Hamilton pass under team orders, which fueled a lot of stories that he was going to become the team’s No.2 driver. 

But then in Russia he came back again and delivered a flawless performance. He was quicker than Hamilton all through the weekend and, most impressively, through all the phases of qualifying he was four or five tenths quicker than his teammate, which is a big chunk of time against one of the best drivers of his generation.

Top dog 

On Sunday Bottas lined up third but took the lead off the Ferraris away from the line and once he got to Turn 1 he was gone. He absolutely blitzed it and finished 36 seconds ahead of Hamilton – when I was looking at the race results I had to do a double take at that figure!

We know Hamilton had engine issues and was told to run in a lower power mode and back off but I still don’t think that accounts for such a large time deficit. 

Bottas should be really proud of himself and hopefully this will kickstart a run where he can turn himself into a genuine championship contender.

I spoke to Niki Lauda straight after the race on C4 and he told me he remembered his first win in Spain, 1974 and was going to tell Bottas that they get easier from here on in. 

No doubt about it, the win will be a huge confidence boost for Bottas. He beat Hamilton in a straight fight in qualifying and the Grand Prix. During the race he resisted immense pressure from Sebastian Vettel. 

All of that will be a huge boost to know that ‘yes I can do it’ and he can firmly put himself in the category of one of the top dogs of the season. 

Vettel’s last lap block

There was a lot of noise in Sochi after the race about whether Felipe Massa did or didn’t let a chasing Vettel through on the last lap. A lot of people were saying Massa blocked Vettel and if he hadn’t then the Ferrari man would have had a go at Bottas for the lead – I don’t believe it for a second!

Bottas had Turn 2 covered, which is the big overtaking spot in Sochi, and in a couple of other potential places for a move I still think he was far enough ahead of Vettel to avoid the danger.

We also shouldn’t take anything away from Bottas by playing up the part that Massa played on the final lap of the race. 

Hats off to Bottas, when you are leading a race you have to pick your way through the traffic and you can’t rely on blue flags all the time. Yes, Massa could have made it easier and backed out at Turn 3 but Bottas still would have won the race fair and square. 

Bottas did the donkey work in the first stint, that’s where he laid the foundations for his victory, he made five or six seconds and Ferrari had absolutely no answer to it. 

Ferrari tried to roll the dice on strategy, they tried to go long and give Vettel fresh tyres towards the end of the race - which definitely would have helped him if the safety car had come out - but Bottas always had track position, and the race was his to lose.

Rise of the Finns

Both Ferrari drivers –and two Finns – were on the podium in Sochi, along with President Putin, as Kimi Raikkonen earned his first top-three finish since Austria last season.

If you look at Raikkonen’s sector times he had the potential to be on pole this weekend instead of his Ferrari teammate. In the end he was half a tenth down on Vettel in qualifying. In the race he was 11 seconds off the pace but I think that was because he realized he didn’t have the chance to fight for the win. 

It’s worth noting that we saw signs this weekend that both Bottas and Raikkonen could yet play a part in this world championship battle, which would be fascinating. 

Hamilton’s lost weekend

On the flip side, Hamilton had a really sub-par weekend by his own account. He talked to Lee afterwards about how it was an odd weekend and how he wasn’t happy.

I tried to speak privately to some people at Mercedes to try to understand what was going on. I also had a look at some qualifying analysis comparing Vettel and Hamilton’s laps on the C4 coverage on Sunday – and that video is available on the C4F1 website.

At the end of the lap, Hamilton was asking for a lot of grip from the front end of his Mercedes which just wasn’t there. Mercedes clearly didn’t have the performance over the final sector of the lap but Bottas seemed to do a better job at coping with it. 

Hamilton was still trying to attack the corners and push on the entries but I think Bottas mentally accepted that the car didn’t have the grip and he was just going to dial it back and under-drive the front end. 

There was a lot of talk over the weekend about drivers not being able to ‘light up’ the front tyres and, because the track surface in Sochi is so unique, it does favour a driver who slightly under drives. 

Bottas seemed more willing to sacrifice entry speed, to hold back and make sure he got the apex at the exit. The Finn has always had good technique around Sochi and that really helped him out in comparison to his teammate this weekend.

Mercedes headache on the horizon

Hamilton and Bottas now have one race win apiece after the first four races of 2017 and Bottas is only 10 points behind Hamilton in the driver standings. 

That’s going to complicate the situation at Mercedes because the team can’t have a clear No.1 and No.2 driver as things stand.

Perhaps Mercedes won’t be able to impose team orders clearly across the season but I still think they’ll need to understand on a race-by-race basis who has the best chance of winning that race and split strategies to counter Ferrari. 

This does create a few headaches for the team in terms of how they plan their strategy and it will be fascinating to see how it all plays out.

Best of the Rest

Force India enjoyed a good result as Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon finished sixth and seventh behind Max Verstappen’s Red Bull, although they did get a bit lucky as Massa had a slow puncture when he was well on course for sixth.

The Williams once again showed it’s a very good car and Massa even qualified between the Red Bulls in sixth, which was a great effort by him. Unfortunately, it was not one but two slow punctures that hampered his race, as his first stop was also a bit earlier than normal. You don’t normally see punctures at this sort of circuit so it was an odd set of circumstances for Massa.

Nico Hulkenberg had another strong race after a strong qualifying. We’re becoming accustomed to seeing him go well on Saturdays this season but the Renault has then gone on to struggle with race pace. This time though the pace and his tyre management were good – he did the longest stint of anyone on the ultra-soft tyres (40 laps) to finish eighth. 

European return

We can now look back on the first four flyaway races of 2017 as one really and we have got a bit of a form guide to the season so far - Ferrari vs Mercedes is game on but Red Bull are not really in the hunt.

The Spanish Grand Prix will set the tone for the next few races and we’ll see upgrades galore coming up and down the pit lane. Red Bull were talking about bringing almost a B-spec car to Barcelona and all the teams will be pushing on with big updates.

Meanwhile, I’m heading off to Spa to drive in the WEC race this weekend. It’ll be nice to be back in the car for the six hours of Spa on Saturday – hope it stays dry!

Otherwise, it’s onwards and upwards to Barcelona.

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