Change afoot after Bottas strikes blow for the underdog
There were several take-aways from the Australian Grand Prix, and 'never discount the underdog' was one of them. Valtteri 'Viktor' Bottas shook the world of automotive soothsayers by winning it. It was his fourth Grand Prix victory in this his seventh season in F1, the other three were achieved in 2017.
'Bridesmaid', 'wingman', 'lackey' and 'second-fiddle' are just some of the words synonymous with the unenviable position of team-mate to five-time world champion Lewis Hamilton. To concede is to compromise your values as a racing driver (think Russia 2018) and the Finn's hand has been forced, on more than one occasion, to aid in the apotheosis of Hamilton.
If revenge is a dish best served cold then Bottas has been raiding the freezer in his quest to usurp his team-mate. When opportunity knocked in Albert Park, he grabbed it with ferocity. Did he finally get the bit between his teeth because the prospect of turning 30 this year has given him a 'time is running out' panic attack? Bottas kicked ass in Oz and the win was a two-finger salute to his detractors. His pit-to-team radio message, uttered on the slowing-down lap, said it all as the vapours of vitriol were released in seven succinct words: 'To whom it may concern, fuck you". No more Mister Nice guy then?
There's only one thing worse than being slower than your team-mate and that's being invisible. Hamilton rendered Bottas exactly that by his utter domination since the two were first paired at Mercedes in 2017. If the Finn was going to exact his revenge he wanted it all. Not content with being in the lead during the race, he also demanded enhanced 'engine modes'. This gave Bottas an additional point for fastest lap so he walked away with the full complement of 26 points.
Not taking away from Bottas' fine victory, it does however need to be tempered with reality. Firstly, pole-sitter Hamilton didn't get a great start thanks to wheelspin. Secondly, having sustained kerb-surfing damage to the floor of his Mercedes, Hamilton struggled with instability throughout the race. So although the world champion finished runner-up he wasn't operating at maximum capacity. Last season he had a similar trajectory and he wasn't winning until the fourth race. Hamilton's start to this season has been solid, but as he attempts to go for a sixth title he probably hadn't factored Bottas into the equation of potential predators. An emboldened enemy lurks within.
Ferrari failed to live up to everyone's great expectations. They were suffering from Goldilocks syndrome. The track didn't suit them, set-up was problematic, balance issues and tyres all stymied their assault. Vettel and Leclerc finished fourth and fifth but Leclerc would have overtaken Vettel had the team not deployed that famous euphemism 'hold position'. "Should I stay behind Sebastian, yes or no?" asked Leclerc whose youth and self-belief serve as a bulwark against any feeling of being overwhelmed as a result of having a four-time world champion as team-mate. The 'Yes' that came back was the wrong answer.
Max Verstappen's Red Bull, now with Honda power, split the Ferraris in qualifying and then beat both in the race to get a place on the podium, the same place Verstappen finished off last season. It was Honda's first podium since Rubens Barrichello's third place at the British Grand Prix in 2008. It's great to have another contender in the mix.
The first race of the season was overshadowed by the sudden death of 'Mr Formula One', Charlie Whiting, who passed away in Melbourne days before the race after suffering a pulmonary embolism at the age of 66. Charlie commanded huge respect in F1 circles. He was omnipresent in the pits and paddock and had many incarnations over the decades as chief mechanic at Brabham and latterly in technical roles as FIA race director, safety delegate, traffic light controller at the race start, head of the F1 technical department, grand prix logistics, inspector of cars in parc fermé, FIA rules enforcer and much more.
In what is a tightly-knit community Charlie was the patriarch. He treated his F1 brood kindly and kept them in check with admirable principles. How do you replace someone like that? A gaping chasm remains and the fracture in the F1 family unit will be felt for years. Cars were adorned with the message 'Thank You Charlie'. It was a fitting tribute.
Next weekend it's on to the Persian Gulf and the island of Bahrain. Last year Vettel, Bottas and Hamilton prevailed and Bottas got fastest lap. From there the circus moves every fortnight to China, Azerbaijan and back to Europe for the Spanish GP (May 10-12). At the moment, Valtteri Bottas is leading the world championship. The question is, for how long?
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