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Bottas learns the fast way

Sky Sports logo Sky Sports 02-05-2017 skysports.com

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In my last column post-Bahrain, I said that, despite taking a hiding in the race, Valtteri Bottas had broken through a couple of glass ceilings by taking pole position and leading the first 14 laps, and that overall it was a good event for him. 

Well, he's clearly a fast learner.

From previous races we know that Bottas is a Sochi track specialist and he had the legs on his illustrious team-mate Lewis Hamilton all through the event. One of the most resonating comments after the race was Hamilton saying "at least I got some good points for the team". It's not often he's reduced to that kind of passive mentality.

Bottas beating his team-mate was one thing, but for the first time this season it appeared that Ferrari had a faster car in both qualifying and the race as they locked out the front row and looked very strong on the long runs in practice.

Sky F1 carried a feature on Valtteri on race day where he said "if I don't think I can beat Lewis then I should stay at home". On Sunday he beat everybody and broke through the second biggest glass ceiling of them all with a fine victory under extreme pressure.

A fact which tells you much about the race in general, it was all about the kilometre dash to the first braking point at turn two. Bottas had a great launch, found some slipstream behind Sebastian Vettel, moved into clear air, and then braked perfectly with no dramas and led the race.

But surely the Ferraris would come at him as the race unfolded? Not until much later after they made their only stops to change to supersoft tyres. They started on ultrasofts but on a such a smooth surface those fancy tyre names should be investigated under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Bottas pulled a suitable gap to Vettel to buy his team the comfort zone of reacting to whatever Ferrari did pit-stop wise. In the end, Merc pitted Bottas on lap 27, and Ferrari waited to invite Vettel into the pits, after a quick change of mind, on lap 34. It's quite possible they should have brought him in earlier given the grip his tyres were still yielding in the closing laps.

We heard over the radio that both Mercedes were at the upper end of temperature limits, but Bottas was in clear air out front and Hamilton was running what looked like a distant P4 and so suffering a little more.

On the supersofts and with a seven-lap tyre life advantage, Vettel came alive and closed the gap. Bottas locked up badly into turn 13 and looked rattled, but quickly regained composure and soaked up the pressure in a most telling and impressive way. His calm, polite and respectful call to his engineer for less radio transmission in the closing stages, with the Ferrari nosecone increasingly filling his mirrors, tells you everything you need to know about this man.

It was a super intense battle at the end, and as so often happens as a race or championship boils to a crescendo, the two main protagonists raise their game another gear and to a higher level.

Can Bottas be 2017 World Champion to break through the ultimate ceiling? We don't know yet, the true champions barely falter over a season, they deliver pretty much all day every day, and we wait to see how he fares in that respect.

But I wouldn't bet against it and now Mercedes have a problem. Points and performance wise Ferrari have a dominant driver emerging in their team. With Hamilton mustering fourth place and now nursing only a 10-point advantage over his emerging and increasingly confident team-mate, and with a one-point lead in the Constructors' title, how are they going to play that?

Elsewhere it was the race we feared from the beginning of the season with these new cars. Wider, more draggy, more aero affected when following each other, and with a long first stint single pitstop strategy, not a lot happened. If there was a proper overtake away from the first lap then I can't remember it. The track layout doesn't help there.

Even the leaders really struggled as they came up to lap backmarkers due to the relentless series of corners from Turn Four onwards, and given the need to follow closely through the final two 90 degree corners in order to pass down the long pit straight there was no action despite the DRS. In fact, once again this season DRS looks less effective, which will please many but it was introduced for a reason.

The 2017 F1 calendar and TV times

We quickly lost four of the 20 cars with Alonso breaking down before the start, Ricciardo having Red Bull's second brake failure in as many races, and Palmer and Grosjean having an acrimonious rendezvous in turn two on the opening lap, which was only ever going to be declared a racing incident.

Fortunately, nobody else dropped out after that but they mostly circulated minding their own business. We have a two-class championship, the new regulations have inevitably blown the field apart and team budgets and resources are easily measured on the stopwatch.

Thankfully Merc and Ferrari are close, and there could be a great multi-car season long battle in the midfield, but we desperately need Red Bull to leave the no-man's land in the middle and join the podium party.

Get ready to hear the words 'upgrade', 'B-Spec', 'pleasantly surprised', 'a little disappointed', 'potential' and 'correlation' when all the new carbon fibre arrives in Barcelona.

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