Valtteri Bottas beats Lewis Hamilton to Australian Grand Prix

Bitter, bitter disappointment coloured the final part of last season for Valtteri Bottas. At the Russian Grand Prix, and no longer in the championship fight, he was ordered to cede his lead to Lewis Hamilton. He duly played the team game but it would have been as hard to swallow as any moment in his career. Here in Melbourne he found redemption in the most emphatic style by putting Hamilton to the sword in the very first race of the 2019 season and winning the Australian Grand Prix.

Bottas has been open about how frustrated he had felt with some of his performances last season and had come back this year with the absolute intent to make his mark. His triumph in doing so was palpable. “To whom it may concern: fuck you,” he announced over the radio after taking the flag in what he later described as the best race of his life.

The 29-year-old believes he can be in the fight for the world championship and to do so he knows he must first beat his team-mate. He did so in Melbourne with aplomb and Hamilton accepted he had been outraced. He finished 20.8 seconds behind the Finn, although the world champion had not been pushing, managing his pace due to a problem with damage to the floor of his car he had picked up on lap four.

Mercedes, who have repeatedly been explicit that they will let their drivers race without team orders while both are in the battle for the title and did so here, will welcome the one-two, especially after they had looked to be behind the pace of Ferrari after testing. They have been dominant while the Scuderia leave Albert Park with some serious questions to answer.

Sebastian Vettel finished in fourth for Ferrari with his team-mate Charles Leclerc in fifth. Vettel had started in third but having been unhappy with the balance of his car all weekend was unable to hold off Max Verstappen’s Red Bull when he charged on fresher rubber to take the final podium place. Vettel was ultimately almost a minute back on Bottas by the time the chequered flag fell. Ferrari’s car had looked absolutely planted during testing, quick and enjoying marvellous balance that allowed its drivers to attack the corners. In Australia they had a different beast entirely.

Bottas leads the field out of turn one. Photo: Julian Smith/Reuters
Bottas leads the field out of turn one. Photo: Julian Smith/Reuters

Drawing too many conclusions from the race here is tricky, however. Albert Park is not typical of most circuits, an outlier and one where overtaking is notoriously hard. Nonetheless, to have enjoyed such an emphatic victory here will be taken as a very positive indicator for the season ahead by Mercedes and for Ferrari that they have work to do.

Red Bull and their new engine partners Honda will also take great heart in that they were so strong out of the blocks and completed the weekend without any significant engine issues. For Honda, who have now secured their first podium since retuning to the sport as an engine supplier in 2014, their perseverance looks to be finally paying off.

For Bottas a fourth career victory and his first since Abu Dhabi in 2017 is the confidence boost he so desperately needed. The crucial moment came when the lights went out. Bottas made a quick start from second on the grid, while Hamilton had some wheelspin from pole, and the Finn was in front by the time they entered turn one.

With Mercedes letting their drivers race they were happy with Bottas’s pace out front and as the pit stops came in to play he was able to build the advantage he had taken off the line into an insurmountable lead.

Vettel opened the sequence of pit stops coming in to take the medium tyre on lap 14. and Hamilton followed him a lap later to cover off the undercut. But the team told the Finn his pace was quicker and that they would keep him out and Bottas promptly confirmed it by pumping in some fastest laps.

This was the form Bottas demonstrated only sparingly in 2018 and indeed when he did he had on occasion been felled by ill-fortune. As at Baku last year when he went out with a puncture while leading. In Australia lady luck was finally smiling for the Finn. Hamilton and Vettel were simply unable to challenge his pace and when Mercedes pitted him on lap 22, he emerged behind only Verstappen who had yet to stop and was comfortably clear of Hamilton and Vettel. Mercedes later reported that the damage to the floor of Hamilton’s car had affected its balance but nonetheless when Verstappen pitted on lap 25, Bottas was back in the lead.

With the pit stop sequence complete he held a strong advantage. By lap 30 he was 16 seconds clear of Hamilton in second and 18 in front of Vettel. The German then came under pressure from Verstappen, who attacked towards turn three on his fresher rubber and made it stick to take third.

For Bottas, however, that there was a relentless determination to absolutely stamp his authority on this season from the off was made abundantly clear when he insisted to the team he was going after the extra point for the fastest lap that has been added to the regulations in 2019. He duly secured it just before taking the win. It leaves him top of the table and compared to the heartache and desperation that ended last season, positively on top of the world.

Daniel Ricciardo, the local hero, went onto the grass off the start line and lost his front wing, forcing him to make an early stop to replace it. It sent him to the back of the field and the Renault driver ultimately had to retire as a precautionary measure on lap 31.

Kevin Magnussen in the Haas was in sixth; Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg in seventh, with Kimi Raikkonen in the Alfa Romeo in eighth. Lance Stroll was ninth for Racing Point and Daniil Kvyat in the Toro Rosso in tenth. Britain’s Lando Norris was a very impressive 12th for McLaren in his first GP. George Russell at the struggling Williams for his debut was in 19th in front of his team-mate Robert Kubica. – Guardian