Sunday 17 December 2017

Flying Finn Bottas has made things interesting in a two-horse race

As he auditions for full-time Mercedes seat, expect more fireworks from winner in Sochi

Valtteri Bottas celebrates his maiden grand prix victory in Sochi last week. Photo: Sergei Grits/AP Photo
Valtteri Bottas celebrates his maiden grand prix victory in Sochi last week. Photo: Sergei Grits/AP Photo

David Kennedy

Australia, China, Bahrain and Russia have concluded their Grands Prix and the march to Europe begins. So what have we learned so far? Well, that it's a two-horse race; the prancing horse that is Ferrari and the advancing horse in the form of Valtteri Bottas. The score is now two-all to constructors Ferrari and Mercedes. But it's not so equal with their leading drivers. Sebastian Vettel sandwiched Lewis Hamilton's single yet emphatic Chinese GP win when he dominated in Australia and Bahrain.

Coming up on the outside and star of the show in Russia last weekend is 27-year-old Bottas, who scored his maiden victory in tremendous style and with it brought a third dimension to the mix. The trajectory that culminated in the win hinted of things to come. A third, a sixth, his first pole position in Bahrain another third and finally a win in Sochi. Mercedes will be delighted and vindicated. Rosberg's replacement is proving to be an inspired choice.

Considering Finland was part of the Russian Empire in the 1800s until its independence in 1917 and there is no Grand Prix in Finland, Bottas had as close to a home win as you could get. He was no slouch when he was at Williams either - 2014 was his best season where he scored a couple of second places and finished the championship in fourth place.

It's taken him five years to get his first pole and win and 2017 is proving a significant season. Remember he's auditioning for a permanent seat at Mercedes so expect more of the same. To add to his kudos, in three of the four races he finished ahead of fellow Finn and nemesis, Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen. Meanwhile, Russia's Daniil Kvyat was hardly clicking his Cossack heels with his 12th place for Toro Rosso.

It seems like yesterday when Bottas raced against our Status team in GP3, winning the championship in 2011. He collected four victories against our two wins and three second places. His best result at Macau was third with our Italian partner Prema. The list of runners and riders in those categories is like a who's who of where-are-they-now. Some went on to race in DTM or carved a career for themselves in sports car racing. You can be sure they're following the fortunes of their peer with keen interest tinged with bitter regret that it wasn't them in that prime seat.

What's happened to the Red Bull challenge? It's more like the ice-bucket challenge: wet and miserable. A myriad issues need sorting; their Renault engine is down on power and the chassis isn't behaving as it should. They're expecting an engine upgrade in Barcelona next weekend and another one in Canada. Verstappen had the edge on Ricciardo which was predicted by most people, although I swam against that particular tide of opinion. Either way, their exceptional talent, which each possess in spades, does not reflect their collective results; a third, a fourth, three fifths and a slew of retirements.

But you don't have to look far to find worse. Enter one of the greatest racing drivers of his generation; misery thy name is Fernando Alonso. He has yet to finish a grand prix in 2017. He's so traumatised by the whole McLaren disaster that he's taking himself off to compete in the Indy 500, an event that clashes with Monaco - ironically one of the few venues where he had a chance of doing well. The Indy 500 is like one of the scariest rollercoasters in the world, it's close-your-eyes stuff and scream until you stop.

Alonso is racing in a formula that is alien to F1 drivers, driven by racers who are honed in the art of rollercoaster racing on ovals. If you correct oversteer in an Indy car you end up not just kissing the wall but becoming a mural on it should things go horribly wrong. One has to respect him for his unadulterated bravery. He aspires to be the second driver ever (Graham Hill being the other) to win the triple: An F1 championship, Le Mans, which he hopes to compete in next year, and the Brickyard where he'll race the McLaren-branded Andretti car with Honda power - a potentially winning combination.

If he does win the race it will be the act of a desperate man keen to bow out with an exceptional pedigree. McLaren and Honda have given their blessing, a bit like a priest gives extreme unction to a dying man, except it's the team that need the last rites. I don't know who's worse but their runaway child may never return home to the boulevard of broken dreams.

Meanwhile, Conor Daly, son of Derek, is also taking part in the Indy 500, but he's honed in the art of driving these beasts. Good luck to all of them on May 28, and to Jenson Button, who comes out of retirement to replace Alonso in Monaco.

Barcelona is next weekend. Max Verstappen outfoxed the two Ferrari drivers last year to win his first Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya. Ricciardo was fourth and Bottas was fifth. The city has lifted a ban on bull-fighting - is that a good omen for Red Bull? They'll need more than coincidence to win this one.

Two weekends following Barcelona the circus moves to Monaco, a place so poor the people wear very little clothing. You'll see them on yachts lying there desperate. It's appalling. It's the same every year, and nobody is addressing it, excuse the pun.

Hamilton, Ricciardo, Perez, Vettel and Alonso completed the top five spots in 2016. Well, I don't think the bookies are taking any bets on Alonso winning, especially given he won't be there. But I'd say Hamilton has a good chance of pulling it off.

In Bahrain, Theodore Prema won the F2 race with Charles Leclerc and we head to Barcelona leading the drivers' championship. Then we move on to Leclerc's Monegasque birthplace, hopefully with more points in the bag. In F3 we are leading the team championship and lying third in the drivers' championship with Callum Ilott. Mick Schumacher scored his first F3 podium in Monza last weekend so he was well chuffed.

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