By Callum Springall
A Finnish driver took his first win in Formula 1, in what was a slow burner of a Russian Grand Prix – but still incredibly tense going into the final laps.
For a time it seemed to be a fairly routine win for the Mercedes new boy in Sochi, and one that made Valtteri Bottas look like a driver who could do that kind of thing every week. A little bit like, oh I don’t know… Lewis Hamilton?
In stark contrast, it was an afternoon that made a three-times world champion look like the one who hadn’t tasted the victory champagne since 2011.
Hindsight shows Bottas was in a class of one all weekend. Considering Mercedes had apparently focused more on race setup than Ferrari, the fact Bottas missed out on the front row by a fraction is made all the more impressive.
His launch into Turn 1 and a blistering first stint on the ultrasoft Pirellis made the 27-year-old’s grand prix – although he had to earn it by channeling the spirit of Mika Hakkinen in the closing laps, as a silver car powered by a Mercedes engine was chased down by a German in a red car. Was this 2017 or 1998?
Another talking point, one I’ve already touched upon, was the apparent absence of Hamilton.
Much of the Briton’s race was compromised by rising temperatures in his brakes and engine, caused by his genuine lack of pace compared to his team-mate. That forced him to back off while being stuck behind Kimi Raikkonen who, to be fair to him, showed a turn of pace we were more used to seeing last year.
So what ended up being a 30 second deficit to the leaders was somewhat deceptive, in one of the worst grand prix weekends of Hamilton’s 11-year-long F1 career.
Meanwhile down the grid, McLaren didn’t exactly whet Sauber’s appetite for 2018, when the Hinwil-based outfit are set to share engines with the fallen giants. In all honesty, I believe the move will benefit all parties: Sauber get an up-to-date engine born out of Honda’s necessity to gain more data, and develop the power unit at double their current rate. In theory.
Honda may be keen to get one of their drivers in the Sauber. Off the top of my head, that could leave Sauber to partner either Pascal Wehrlein or Marcus Ericsson with Formula Two driver Nobuharu Matsushita from next year… Sorry, did I say all this was going to be good for Sauber?!
Something else that stuck out was Sean Bratches’ statement there would be more street races in F1 in the coming years, including the culmination of the long-running saga to get a grand prix in the New York and New Jersey area.
Baring in mind Sochi is essentially a street race – with slow, tight corners that depend a lot on traction, not to mention the claustrophobic positioning of the barriers – and has yet to produce a truly enthralling race, it suggests this isn’t exactly what is needed if the sport is to grow as a source of entertainment.
As a business, it’s great to take F1 to new, generally middle-class consumer areas such as New York, where first-time viewers may well chalk up the cash to go and see it live. But this is a potential trend that increases the risk of the sport losing its character and charm as a high-speed, high-octane thrill machine.
And given that was already happening under the later years of the Bernie Ecclestone regime – selling its soul to the highest bidder to go to such glamorous locations as a South Korean swamp – I for one am concerned Liberty Media will fare no better in the catch-22 known as ‘taking the sport to a wider audience’.
In fairness, I’m not against having everything in moderation, so trips to New York or London – not Battersea Park PLEASE! – wouldn’t be unbearable. That is, provided Chase Carey or ‘Chairman Chase’ for the more satirical mind, said he wants to preserve the “classic” tracks, by which one can only assume that he means the likes of Silverstone, Spa and Monza.
One final toast for our winner. According to his team, Bottas is getting stronger by the race. That isn’t surprising to hear given he was on pole in Bahrain, and trounced a man with stats to equal Ayrton Senna throughout the Sochi weekend. Supposedly, his application, engineering and raw pace are all improving, which is the likely result of having a world class team-mate.
In the words of Mark Webber – an honorary Norfolkian no less – not bad for a number two driver.
♦ Callum Springall is a blogger with the NRF1. You can follow Callum on Twitter @callumspring18