Valtteri Bottas has become just the fifth Finnish grand prix winner after a cool and collected drive to Russian Grand Prix victory in Sochi.
After the embarrassment of throwing away pole position in Bahrain two weeks earlier, where he was twice forced to move aside for his faster teammate in the race, Bottas made himself Mercedes’s lead man in Russia on a weekend teammate Lewis Hamilton couldn’t extract any pace from the car.
But it was far from the waltz to victory many expected Mercedes to enjoy. Despite the German marque’s 100 per cent victory record in Sochi, including the rare record of having led every lap ever run at the circuit, Bottas had to hard-earn his first winner’s trophy.
Ferrari stole the show on Saturday when Sebastian Vettel led teammate Kimi Räikkönen to the Italian team’s first qualifying one-two since 2008, sending the strongest signal yet that the Scuderia in 2017 would be a match for the reigning constructors champion.
With the Silver Arrows lamenting the loss of its silver bullet — unbeatable qualifying pace thanks to a trick engine mode usable for just two laps a weekend — and with Lewis Hamilton a shocking half-second off Vettel’s pace, it took an ace start on Bottas’s part to rescue the weekend for Mercedes.
The Finn matched Vettel’s launch off the line, but the Sochi Autodrom’s long run to the first braking point enabled the Mercedes to slipstream the Ferrari, winning Bottas a lead that eventually won him the race.
The super-smooth Russian asphalt meant the grand prix was a straightforward one-stop affair, with the only question being on what lap to change tyres.
Bottas and Vettel dared each other to pit first, but it was the leader who blinked — the Mercedes switched to more durable Pirelli rubber seven laps before the Ferrari in an attempt to build a lead on newer tyres.
Ferrari unexpectedly stayed out to give Vettel slightly fresher tyres for end the race and a chance to chase down Bottas’s lead — and it came nerve-rackingly close to paying off.
The pressure on Bottas to deliver his first race win was extreme, and the ordinarily silky-smooth Finn made a costly lock-up on lap 38 of 52, allowing Vettel to make major in-roads on what was a 4.6-second gap.
The pair dodged lapped cars in the final five laps as the gap dropped to less than a second, but Bottas composed himself in time to navigate around the final backmarker — former Williams teammate Felipe Massa, no less — to beat Vettel to the line with just 0.6 seconds to spare.
In his 81st grand prix Bottas was finally a winner.
“It’s going to take a while to sink in,” he said after the race. “Normally I’m not that emotional, but hearing the Finnish national anthem was very special for me.
“It’s all a bit surreal — the first win and hopefully the first of many. It was definitely one of my best races ever.”
The result turns Bottas into a popular and genuine title contender for Mercedes, with the Finn now third in the title standings with a 10-point gap to his teammate and a 23-point gap to Vettel in the lead.
But more important was the way Bottas dominated his title-winning teammate in Sochi — the pair were separated by a mammoth 36 seconds at the chequered flag, which will have satisfied the modest Finn and gently recalibrated the Mercedes dynamic away from becoming a one-sided, Hamilton-centric affair.
It certainly adds intrigue to the evolving title fight, the next chapter of which takes place at Spain’s Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on 14 May.