IT WAS a long time coming. After 84 races, Finn Valtteri Bottas has taken his maiden Formula One victory in his fourth start for the Mercedes team, triumphing in the Russian Grand Prix after sustaining heated closing-laps pressure from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.
The Ferraris of Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen earlier locked out the front row in qualifying (the first one-two for the Scuderia since Magny Cours in 2008).
But off the start Bottas, from grid position three, swept around the outside of both the red cars into the lead, and there he stayed.
Although there was some the usual first-lap biffo, it was a race of one-stop tyre strategy and precious little overtaking.
The race only really came alive with 14 laps remaining when Bottas made his only mistake, flat-spotting his left front in a smoky brake lock-up to put his four-second margin over Vettel in some peril.
With encouragement over his radio, Vettel chased hard on fresher rubber, the gap shrinking inexorably. Bottas kept his cool and carefully managed the squared-off tyre. Then, as the leaders encountered lapped traffic, the Ferrari moved to within DRS range.
Still Bottas held firm, helped on his final lap by Felipe Massa, his old Williams teammate who held up Vettel enough to take the tension away. The margin at the chequer: 0.6 sec.
“It's going to take a while to sink in,” a calm and composed Bottas said afterwards. “Normally I'm not that emotional but hearing the Finnish national anthem was very special for me.
“It's all a bit surreal, the first win and hopefully the first of many. It was definitely one of my best races ever.
“The pressure from Sebastian wasn't too bad; the main issue was with the lapped cars, trying to get past those. It was tricky to pass them without losing time. I also had a lockup with about 15 laps to go that hurt the pace, but it was manageable. I asked for a bit of radio silence just to get on it and focus.
“I always trusted my ability, but this result confirms it,” added Bottas, the fifth Finn to win a Formula One race. The others: Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen, Raikkonen, and the driver many tend to forget, Heikki Kovalainen.
Bottas, a late replacement for the retired Nico Rosberg, is currently on a one-year agreement with Mercedes. His afternoon in Sochi may help swing him an extension.
Raikkonen broke a lengthy podium drought to take third, while Lewis Hamilton battled his overheating Mercedes to finish a distant fourth ahead of a lonely Max Verstappen’s Red Bull. It was a troubling weekend for Hamilton; the triple world champion was never in the fight.
Vettel continues to lead the world drivers’ championship with 86 points, followed by Hamilton (73), Bottas (63) and Raikkonen (49).
Daniel Ricciardo (fifth) outqualified teammate Max Verstappen (seventh) again but it was plain that the Red Bull Renaults were struggling with straight-line pace and, let it be said, were not great in the corners either.
Then Verstappen’s car developed a water leak that proved hard to trace. The crew worked on the car right up to race time, and it gave no further trouble. The Dutchman found a way past Ricciardo and Massa off the start but didn’t have the firepower to move further forward.
Ricciardo encountered brake failure after spending time behind the safety car, retiring just five laps into the grand prix. A subdued Ricciardo said later: “We don’t know how much the new package will give us until we get it on track in a few weeks but we are hoping Barcelona is the first step to getting closer to the leaders.”
Fernando Alonso’s Sunday was over on the formation lap, his McLaren Honda slowing to a halt. The Spaniard must be pleased he has a drive in the Indy 500 to distract him from the Honda woes.
This failure came on the same weekend that Sauber revealed it would use Honda power units from next year. Sauber currently uses 2016 Ferrari engines. Apart from a heavily discounted engine supply, it’s hard to grasp just what Sauber will get from the deal. Honda obviously believes having another team to give feedback and info about its engines will be a help.
Neuville snatches dramatic Rally Argentina
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville came from behind on the last stage of a brutal Rally Argentina round of the World Rally Championship to snatch a win from long-time leader Elfyn Evans by a mere 0.7sec.
While Neuville enjoyed a remarkable second consecutive WRC win a season of surprises and upsets, Evans was left to deal with the heartbreak of missing out on what would have been his first victory in the world championship.
Ford M-Sport’s Evans was a surprise early leader while crashes took out the Citroen pair Kris Meek and Craig Breen, and fellow Fiesta drivers Sebastien Ogier and Ott Tanak struggled in the rough stages.
Evans led by over a minute shrink on Friday, but had his advantage cut by Neuville to just 11 seconds by Saturday night, setting up a tense final day.
Evans announced he would be going hard for his first victory and he certainly dug deep on Sunday, Neuville slicing only 2.5secs out of his lead over the first three stages, even though the Welshman was dealing with brake troubles.
The Belgian then won special stage 17 by more than eight seconds, leaving him just 0.6sec in arrears going into the deciding Power Stage.
Evans appeared to respond spectacularly and was up by more than three seconds well into the Power Stage.
But at the finish he was 1.3secs off the Hyundai’s time.
"Gutted to be honest to lose by such a fine margin after so many issues,” Evans admitted at the finish.
"I need to learn from it to come back stronger and win these rallies in the future."
Third in Argentina was the Ford Fiesta of Ott Tanak, who extended his lead over his M-Sport teammate Sebastien Ogier during Sunday.
Fifth was Toyota’s Jari-Matti Latvala, 23.4secs back from Ogier, who struggled with a mysterious handling problem on Saturday.
Hyundai’s Kiwi driver, Hayden Paddon, held on to sixth despite having just rear-drive in one stage.
Ogier still heads the world championship on 102 points, from Latvala (86) and Neuville (84).
Unstoppable Whites take sixth Targa Tasmania victory
Jason White and his uncle John White have scored a sixth overall win at Targa Tasmania road rally, bringing them within just two victories of all-time Targa legends greats Jim Richards and Barry Oliver.
The six-day event quickly evolved into a duel between two Dodge Vipers, with White of Devonport and runner-up Michael Pritchard of Hobart both driving the big V10-engined American sports cars.
Leading for all but one of the event’s 35 stages, the Whites were worthy winners.
While they ceded some time on the final day to conserve their tyres, the Whites had a margin of 34 seconds over Pritchard and Gary Mourant at the Hobart finish.
Last year’s Targa winners, Matt Close and Cameron Reeves, couldn’t quite match the overall speed of the Dodges this year, taking third place overall in their Porsche GT3, 1m 16s behind the Whites.
“We were just so lucky with the way it all played out – it was just incredible,” Jason White said. “We had to replace a diff after day one – you only get one opportunity to work on your car and we used ours up very early,” the driver said.
“But we were just so lucky it happened after the George Town street stage, otherwise we would have been stranded somewhere in the wilderness with a broken diff.
“I’ve done Targa 20 times and we’ve won it six times and had it taken away from us when we were leading as many times, so luck does play a part and you can never feel like you’ve got it in the bag.”
Last year the Whites blew the engine in the Viper while leading.
A heroic drive came from Queenslander Jon Siddins, who finished a remarkable ninth outright (and winner of the Shannons Classic GT division) in a 1970 Datsun 240Z with his wife Gina navigating.
A field of 270 entries valued at $30 million contested the 2017 Targa across several classes.
Will Power kick starts his 2017 IndyCar season
Will Power finally landed a strong result in the 2017 IndyCar Championship, taking second place to fellow Team Penske driver, and defending champ, Simon Pagenaud at Phoenix Raceway.
Both qualified towards the front, meaning they missed a five-car shunt in the first 30 seconds of the race. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Mikhail Aleshin lost the rear of his car in turn one and triggered a pile-up that included Sebastien Bourdais, Marco Andretti, Max Chilton and Graham Rahal. All five Honda drivers emerged from the crash unscathed, but none were able to continue.
Pagenaud, in the # 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, took the lead for good on the 137th of 250 laps on the 1.022-mile oval, but he admitted to feeling the tension as he edged closer to his first-ever win on an oval.
It took the Frenchman 105 IndyCar starts to nail the oval victory but he did it in style, leading home Power by 9.1 seconds.
“I have a button on my wheel that tells me how many laps were left,” said Pagenaud. “I kept pressing it. It was stressful.
“This is incredible. This is my best win. You need to be so strategic to win on an oval and today was the perfect day. I couldn’t be any happier.”
Pagenaud now leads in the points ahead of other 2017 race winners Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden.
In the fourth race of the year Queenslander Power, who led much of the last race in Alabama before losing all chance with a punctured tyre, has at last banked a decent haul of points although he still languishes way down in the standings.
JR Hildebrand, returning to the cockpit after missing last week’s Alabama round with a broken left hand, also had a strong race to take third in the # 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. It was Hildebrand’s best result since he took second in the 2011 Indianapolis 500.
Mawson endures tough F3 round at Monza
Joey Mawson’s Monza round of the European Formula 3 Championship were difficult in every way, with the Sydneysider unable to take a trick in the three races dominated by rival Carlin drivers.
After a bad qualifying session – best times were deleted due track limit violations –Mawson’s Mercedes-powered car showed it was missing straightline speed. He finished just 13th fastest
A questionable drive-through penalty for tapping VAR teammate Pedro Piquet into a spin during race one left the Australian 14th.
In race two, Mawson moved from 13th to ninth before a rival punctured his rear tyre.
Another good start in the final race – from 18th to 10th on the opening lap – was promising. But then Mawson struggled on old tyres until he was again hit from behind, ultimately classified 16th.
The next round of the championship is at Pau in France on May 19-21. In the meantime, the VAR squad will work to improve the qualifying pace of its cars.