Valtteri Bottas admitted his maiden Formula One victory felt “a little bit surreal” but was worth the long wait after securing a tense triumph for Mercedes in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix.
The 27-year-old Finn, recruited by Mercedes in January as a replacement for retired 2016 champion German Nico Rosberg, resisted intense pressure from Sebastian Vettel to win in his 81st Grand Prix and in his fourth outing with the champion team.
“I felt good, but it’s a little bit surreal this first win,” he said. “Hopefully, the first of many. It was definitely one of my best races ever so it’s a good feeling and I am happy.”
Starting from third on the grid, Bottas made a storming start at the Sochi Autodrom and delivered a powerful opening stint to stay clear of four-time champion Vettel’s Ferrari, the German admitting he could not live with the Finn’s pace at that time.
Bottas had secured 11 previous podium finishes without recording a win and conceded that he made an error in the closing stages when he locked up at Turn 13, a mistake that gave Vettel a chance to attack again.
“It was ok, really, but the main thing for me was the lapped cars, trying to get past those was not so easy,” said Bottas. “I was not happy on a few occasions and I had one lock-up with 10-15 laps to go, which hurt the pace a bit, but other than that it was alright. And, yes, I did ask for radio silence from the pit-wall for me to get on it and get focused.”
Bottas is the fifth Finn to win in Formula One and he believes that clearing that hurdle will now enable him to move on and do it again. “I always knew I could get good results if everything goes right and I always trust in my ability,” he explained. “But it’s nice to get confirmation that the results are possible. It’s good to continue from here.”
Bottas made his debut with Williams in 2013 and spent four years with the British outfit before what he described as his ‘strange’ move to Mercedes.
“It took quite a while, more than 80 races for me, but it’s definitely worth the wait,” said Bottas. “This strange opportunity came to me in the winter to join the team — and they made it possible. So I really want to thank them.”
Vettel came second ahead of Ferrari team-mate Finn Kimi Raikkonen who claimed his first podium finish since last year’s Austrian Grand Prix. Bottas’s Mercedes team-mate three-time champion Lewis Hamilton struggled with over-heating problems and finished fourth.
“Our start was probably a match with Valtteri,” said Vettel who started on pole. “Maybe he gained a bit of momentum. He had a massive tow. I defended the inside, but when we approached the braking zone, he was in front and able to shut the door on me. That is where he won the race. He then had an amazing first stint -– and I couldn’t stay with him.”
Dutch teenager Max Verstappen finished fifth for Red Bull ahead of Sergio Perez and his Force India team-mate Esteban Ocon, Nico Hulkenberg of Renault and Felipe Massa of Williams. Carlos Sainz finished 10th for Toro Rosso.
The result lifted Vettel clear at the top of the drivers championship with 86 points ahead of Hamilton on 73 with Bottas up to third with 63 points. Mercedes lead the constructors’ title race with 136 points to Ferrari on 135 after four rounds of this year’s championship.