Last weekend in Sochi, we saw Valtteri Bottas claim his first ever Grand Prix win in a tight finish over Championship Leader Sebastian Vettel. The margin of victory at just 0.617 seconds was testament to a thrilling race and it also underlines that this season’s Drivers Championship is far more open than many would have imagined at the start of the campaign. Vettel’s second place sees the German hold off Lewis Hamilton at the head of the table but what has the Russian Grand Prix told us about the remainder of 2017?
"Lewis Hamilton" (CC BY 2.0) by eugeneflores
Following Nico Rosberg’s retirement ahead of the new season, it was widely felt that Bottas was at Mercedes to learn his trade, rather than be a true rival to Lewis Hamilton. The acrimonious nature of Hamilton’s and Rosberg’s working relationship suggested that the Englishman needed a pupil rather than a competitor but now we know that Bottas isn’t here to make up the numbers. After four years with Williams, the 27-year-old had claimed just nine podium finishes but had clear potential. In a better car, he would step up but would Mercedes bosses have believed that the Finn would mount a genuine challenge for the Drivers’ Championship? After Russia, Bottas is third favourite for the title at 8/1 with online bookmaker Bet Way and another victory in Spain next time out will see that shorten even further. The Finn’s career points record now stands at 474 but expect that tally, and his record of Podium finishes, to increase substantially across the remainder of the season.
End of the Procession
"F1 - Mercedes - Lewis Hamilton" (CC BY 2.0) by Jaffa The Cake
Mercedes may have won the 2017 Russian Grand Prix but the remaining podium finishes were taken up by Ferrari, suggesting that it’s not just the Drivers’ Championship that could go down to the wire in 2017. Having won the Constructors’ Championship for three consecutive seasons from 2014 to 2016, the German manufacturer has seen little competition in that time with an average winning points margin across those campaigns of 289. With four races completed in 2017, there is just one point between Mercedes and Ferrari and indicators from those GPs suggest that it will be equally tight moving forward. The German team remains a clear favourite to complete four titles in a row but at the very least, there is tangible competition for the first time since Red Bull took the Constructors’ Championship in 2013.
Time to Step Up
"Sebastian Vettel" (CC BY-ND 2.0) by exit1979
Despite their team occupying two of the three podium places in Sochi, Ferrari fans might have hoped for more after practise and qualifying. For the first time since the French Grand Prix in 2008, the Scuderia occupied the front row with Vettel’s pole their first of the season. The team were quickest in all three qualifying sessions and all of these stats point to a brighter future and a possible first Constructors’ Championship since that 2008 campaign. To convert that promise however, Ferrari needs to carry that qualifying form into the race itself as little went to plan once the lights went out and Bottas took an early advantage.
The result means that Mercedes remain the only winners of the Russian Grand Prix since it arrived on the F1 calendar in 2014. Conditions could favour them in Spain, however, where temperatures are expected to rise considerably and the higher degradation surface could play into their hands. Ferrari may need to take out the first two podium places in Barcelona as the season will then head to Monaco where Mercedes are four from four on this great circuit since Rosberg won in 2013.
"Sebastian Vettel - Ferrari - Halo" (CC BY 2.0) by Jaffa The Cake
For the remainder of the teams in Sochi, there was little to suggest that the early season trend will change any time soon. After four races in 2017, only Red Bull’s Max Verstappen has broken the Mercedes-Ferrari podium stranglehold with a third place in China and for now, it looks like a battle between two teams and four drivers. But at least we have a battle: Formula One is a sport that really divides opinion; you either get it or you don’t but even hardcore fans had been starting to despair of Mercedes’ and their drivers’ dominance. If we have learnt anything from Sochi then the overriding message is that this could be one of the most open campaigns for many years and for that reason, we should all welcome this latest set of results.