A fantastic performance from both team and driver over three tricky days at Russia’s Sochi Autodrom gave a delighted Valtteri Bottas his first Grand Prix win and saw Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport move one point ahead of Ferrari in what promises to be a closely-fought Constructors’ Championship battle.
Scuderia Ferrari edge the Silver Arrows in tense Qualifying shootout
The first real indication of the task facing the team came in the second free practice session on Friday afternoon, when Ferrari demonstrated great pace and strong consistency on Pirelli’s UltraSoft compound tyre, appearing to have just over a half second’s single-lap speed advantage over the Silver Arrows.
The characteristics of Sochi’s smooth track surface give teams a difficult task in bringing the front tyre temperatures up without damaging the rears. And with precious little tyre degradation creating what was expected to be an exclusively one-stop race, strategic options were limited. The Mercedes squad thus prioritised performance on the UltraSoft tyre for qualifying and the opening race stint during much brainstorming on Friday evening.
Although Lewis was never quite happy with his car balance at any point during the weekend, Valtteri actually came tantalisingly close to a second successive pole position, missing out by less than a tenth of a second as Ferrari locked out the front row of a Grand Prix grid for the first time since the French Grand Prix at Magny Cours in 2008.
Arguably, though, qualifying P3 – just 0.03s behind compatriot Kimi Räikkönen but on the clean side of the grid – proved to be a cloud with a silver lining for Valtteri. Sochi, along with Mexico, has an abnormally long run to the first corner, around 800m, which represents around 10s of full-throttle running from when the starting lights extinguish to the point at which the drivers go hard on the brakes for Turn 2 (Turn 1 being a flat-out kink). That affords the opportunity to pick up a tow which, if done optimally, translates into an 8-9m advantage.
Valtteri jumped the two Ferraris off the start
Valtteri had his mind focused on exactly that and executed it perfectly as he made a marginally better getaway than pole man Sebastian Vettel, drafted alongside and was then able to cut across in front of the Ferrari and close the door into Turn 2 to lead! Lewis, despite starting in P4, on the dirty side of the grid, also made a strong start to maintain position.
“I went left to get in the tow of the car in front,” he explained. “Kimi got a tow from two cars ahead, I got a tow from Valtteri but then Seb pulled in behind him, so I couldn’t and overtake and had to settle for fourth position into Turn 2.”
After difficult heavy-fuel opening stints for Valtteri on the softest compound Pirellis in both Australia and Bahrain, it was soon evident that the Sochi script was very different as he immediately started to open out a gap to Vettel’s pursuing Ferrari – increasing his lead by an average of 0.3s per lap over the first 15 laps of the 52 lap race. On the evidence of Friday afternoon’s long runs, that was a big surprise.
Part of the explanation was proof positive of just how intense F1’s current battle between Mercedes and Ferrari is. Both teams had pushed cooling to the absolute limit in search for ultimate engine performance. Opening up an extra ‘cooling package’ (or bodywork slot) creates additional aerodynamic drag costing an estimated 0.1s/lap, which translates to more than 5s of performance over a race distance.
Mercedes too, needed to be mindful of temperature control
Running in free air at the front, therefore, was the optimum situation for Valtteri on a race day hotter than forecast. But an opening lap Safety Car following contact between Jolyon Palmer and Romain Grosjean saw temperatures climbing as the field ran slowly behind the beautiful Mercedes-AMG GT S Safety Car.
Further suspicions that the temperature situation could be marginal came at the Safety Car re-start after just four laps. Valtteri’s getaway was as well-judged as his race start, but the fact that he did not come under more pressure from Vettel was likely due to Ferrari’s need to control engine temperatures at a time when they wanted to be as close as possible, rather than any misjudgement on the part of the four time World Champion.
Mercedes too, needed to be mindful of temperature control, as evidenced by Lewis reporting power cut-outs after five laps and being asked to cool the car.
And so, there seemed to be two factors at work in Valtteri’s hugely impressive opening stint: firstly, his Mercedes W08 feeling better ‘connected’ front / rear on the Ultrasoft tyre than at any point hitherto during the weekend and, second, Ferrari telling Vettel to allow a gap in the interests of engine cooling – possibly in the belief that they had the pace to close it down again as the pit stop window approached.
Valtteri had to earn his first victory
However, when Vettel upped his pace by around half a second with his fastest lap of the race to that point on Lap 16 (1:38.629), Valtteri was able to respond. He drove a superbly consistent sequence of four laps (1:38.40; 1:38.40; 1:38.35; 1:38.37) that increased his lead to more than 5.5s. Perhaps for the first time, those anticipating a Ferrari whitewash post-qualifying began to have second thoughts.
The lack of tyre degradation in Sochi meant that an early pit stop ‘undercut’ was not the powerful tool it normally is. That, plus the need to clear traffic and the feeling that the W08 was better-suited to the UltraSoft than the SuperSoft compound Pirelli in Russia, was the explanation behind the team leaving Valtteri out until half distance on the UltraSoft. A slick 2.5s stop saw him blast back into the fray just over 20s behind Vettel’s now-leading Ferrari, with around 25-26s the necessary pit window.
Ferrari, realising that there was little point in mirroring the Mercedes strategy, elected to leave Vettel out for a further seven laps in order to have a fresher set of SuperSofts with which to attack in the closing stages. If Valtteri was to break his Grand Prix duck, he was going to have to earn it!
Ferrari pitted Vettel with 18 laps remaining and he re-joined 4.6s behind the leading Mercedes. On the red-walled Pirelli, he immediately began to cut into Valtteri’s margin – the gap coming down to 4.33s and then 4.04s on consecutive laps. In his endeavours to respond, Valtteri locked up and flat-spotted his left-front tyre at Turn 13 on lap 38, costing himself just over a second. Vettel was now within 3s and there were still 14 laps to go…
Valtteri: It was worth the wait!
Over the next four laps, Valtteri’s pace dropped by 0.5-0.75s and suddenly the chasing Ferrari was just 1.4s behind – dangerously close to getting within the 1s DRS range. With his first Grand Prix win so tantalisingly close, Valtteri was now under the most intense pressure imaginable. It was the acid test of his composure.
But, Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man! Suddenly Valtteri was lapping even quicker than before his lock-up!
“After the lock-up In Turn 13 I lost tyre temperature and it takes a while to get it back again at Sochi,” he explained. “That was the reason for the slower laps. At this circuit in particular, a good rhythm is so important. Thankfully, I got that back again.”
In the dying moments of the race, Valtteri also faced the challenge of negotiating back-markers without tripping up. “Under the new regulations they only get the warning when the gap is less than a second and I don’t think that’s enough here!” he said.
Vettel got the Ferrari within DRS range with two laps remaining but, in a nail-biting finish to a superb race, a delighted Valtteri held firm to take the chequered flag just 0.61s in front of Vettel.
“Thanks Guys, amazing!” came over team radio. “It’s been a while coming, more than 80 races for me, but worth the wait!”
Valtteri: It’s all a little bit surreal
Valtteri is not renowned for emotion but one or two did point out that he seemed to keep the crash helmet on a mite longer than usual… And, standing on the top step of the podium, listening to the Finnish national anthem was, he admitted, “a very special moment.”
From the podium to the post-race press conference and Valtteri was greeted by a spontaneous round of appreciative applause from the world’s F1 media.
“Thanks guys…” he said, with a wry smile, “It’s all a little bit surreal: my first win and hopefully the first of many. It was definitely one of my best ever races. I always trusted in my ability but it’s nice to have confirmation. The pressure at the end was OK and the main thing was the lapped cars. With these new cars we definitely lose more downforce when we are within two or three seconds, so it was tricky to get close and pass them without losing time. I did ask for a bit more radio silence from the guys on the pit wall so I could get on with it and focus. It went quite nice and quiet and that helped!”
Unsaid, was a suspicion that Ferrari is able to follower cars closer than Mercedes with less aerodynamic interference, making Valtteri’s task in those closing laps tougher still.
Lewis: I can’t really explain it
Just as Bahrain had not played out for Valtteri, so Lewis had his problems throughout the Russian weekend.
“I can’t really explain it,” he admitted. “I have some ideas but there’s lots of work to be done. In the race the car was exactly the same as in qualifying, with snaps of oversteer in sector three. And I had overheating, too. From lap five onwards I had to slow down and turn down the settings and Power Unit, so I was going to be fourth from very early on.
“In terms of set-up there was not a huge difference to Valtteri: a bit of difference in low and medium speed corners, where I struggled, and a little bit of difference on the differential. The direction he was able to go, I wasn’t able to go, and I don’t really understand why, because our driving styles are quite similar.”
Emphasising the importance of maximising team performance, though, Valtteri’s 25 points and Lewis’s 12 points for fourth place helped move Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport back to the head of the Constructors’ Championship table with 136 points to Scuderia Ferrari’s 135 after the opening four races, as the team took its biggest points haul of the season so far.
Toto: A really deserving winner!
“Lewis found it hard to keep his tyres in the right window and he was never in it,” Toto explained. “Whether it was tyre specific or set-up, I don’t know. But if someone knows their way around Sochi, it’s Lewis. Somewhere we must have taken a wrong turning.”
Despite his own disappointment, Lewis was one of the first to congratulate Valtteri on his first Grand Prix win and Vettel, too, was magnanimous: “Today is Valtteri’s day. He drove a fantastic race, he had incredible pace, did a superb job. He deserves to win because he drove better than the rest of us.”
An emotional Toto also played tribute to his new F1 victor: “He was outstanding in the junior formulae and against an experienced team mate at Williams. He made a risky move to have Lewis as team mate and to take over the reigning World Champion’s car and has done really well, with a pole in Bahrain and a win today, under such pressure from Sebastian. A really deserving winner!”
While nothing should detract from a wonderful drive executed perfectly by Valtteri, the team’s willingness to push the boundaries on cooling was a contributory factor in such a performance. After Friday’s initial indications, this victory, in rugby parlance, was ‘one against the head.’ After three years of relative comfort for Mercedes, it also proved that F1 is currently exactly what it should be: the world’s best pushing to the absolute limit. Roll on Barcelona!