"To whom it may concern, **** you."
That final radio message pretty much sums up the performance of Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas over the course of the 2019 Australian Grand Prix on Sunday. The Finnish star would resoundingly answer his critics with a career best performance in the #77 machine in Melbourne, recording his first race victory in over 15 months and clearly marking himself out as a man to watch in the year ahead.
Rewind to the 2018 season ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and Bottas would cut a downcast figure in the F1 paddock, the 29-year-old having just endured a year where the performances of his Mercedes teammate would make Bottas own efforts look practically pedestrian, walking away from the season without a single win and a lowly fifth overall in the standings.
Clearly ready to step away and recharge his batteries to reflect on why the early season form of 2018 had vanished by late November, not many in the Grand Prix paddock would expect Bottas to return to the grid as anything other than a defeated man – ready to once again pick up as faithful supporter to Lewis Hamilton’s championship challenge.
Come Melbourne, Bottas appeared a visibly more relaxed and at ease figure – complete with evil beard – amidst claims from his side of the garage that 2019 will be his year to shine. With the highly rated Esteban Ocon sat waiting in the wings for an opportunity, shine is exactly what Bottas needs to do if he holds out any hope of extending his stay with the most successful team of the current era.
With qualifying on Saturday a close run thing between the two Mercedes men, it would be Bottas first off the line and into turn one, taking a lead that he never looked remotely like relinquishing for the remainder of the race. Pulling away Lewis Hamilton esq in the opening laps to remove any DRS threat from behind, the #77 appeared to have pace in hand over his rivals, and teammate, eking out his advantage whilst looking after the car and tyres where necessary – a true champion performance the like we’ve seen time and again from both Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel in his Red Bull heyday.
Fastest Lap Point – A Successful Introduction
Many scoffed at the late addition of a point for fastest race lap prior to Melbourne, myself included, but judging by the fun and games that took place in the final stages of the race this weekend, with Bottas constantly trading quick times with Verstappen and others in a bid for the extra point, it actually looks like mission accomplished by the FIA. Alarmingly it would be the race leading Mercedes that was able to pull off the fastest lap feat, showing the Silver Arrow have pace to spare this year, so the jury remains out if this new rule will allow other cars to gather extra points, or if it will be the sole reserve of the Merc drivers as the year wears on.
Where Did Ferrari Go?
Pre-season testing in Barcelona suggested Ferrari have a good car this year, fast, reliable and seemingly easy to drive. Melbourne would prove the lie to two of those three statements come Sunday night.
Having been hailed as the team to beat by no less than five time World Champion Lewis Hamilton, Ferrari never really turned up in Melbourne, and at no stage did the Prancing Horse look capable of setting fastest times – which will be a worry for Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc.
So where did that early testing pace go? One could argue the rather unique nature of the Albert Park street circuit isn’t representative of an average modern Grand Prix venue, often throwing up surprise results, but it is hard to place blame on track conditions when trying to account for the seven tenth deficit between the silver and red cars in qualifying. That will certainly have some very smart engineers back in Italy scratching their heads between now and Bahrain in two weeks’ time.
Worse still for Ferrari, come race day the red cars would appear to be even further behind than qualifying and practice suggests, finding themselves ultimately failing to fend off the spirited challenge of a Honda powered Max Verstappen, ending off the podium in a race they have been victorious in for the past two years. It appears that much more work is needed if Ferrari are to entertain championship-challenging aspirations in 2019.
Seb, Charles is Faster Than You
Worried enough by the lack of pace in the SF90, Ferrari also have the headache of dealing with two very fast and exciting drivers this season – gambling that the youth and inexperience of new recruit Charles Leclerc will take time to hone into a champions package, therefor putting their eggs firmly in the basket of Sebastian Vettel. However, in only the first race, is it appropriate for Ferrari to issue team orders and ask the charging Leclerc to hold off challenging his teammate for a late race fourth position? Seems a little risky, but with Vettel very much the experienced pairing of the two, and a championship runner up these past two years, it might pay off at the end of the season… or not. Time will tell.
Rookies Perform (In Qualifying at Least)
Melbourne would see no less than four rookie drivers take to the circuit during the opening round, and all had strong events as they looked to make their mark on the sport. Ok, Giovinazzi has actually raced a couple of times in the past, but for the sake of simplicity, we will class the longhaired Italian as a rookie for the new season…
Ironically, given his relative experience, Giovinazzi would be the least impressive of the new drivers this weekend, coming home well behind experienced teammate in both qualifying and the race, without really giving the TV cameras much to focus on throughout his weekend. Solid, if not spectacular.
(Fer)Lando Norris would be at the other end of the spectrum. The McLaren rookie having a storming drive in qualifying to break the long Q3 exile for the McLaren team with an eventual eighth place result – easily one of the most impressive drivers on Saturday afternoon, rookie or not. Sadly the race wouldn’t quite follow the same script for Norris, the Englishman spending too much time behind a long running Giovinazzi, allowing slower cars behind to perform the undercut and leapfrog the orange car at the line.
Toro Rosso debutant Albon would also find himself stuck in the same train as Norris come race day, and despite appearing to have the legs on team mate Kvyat all weekend, the Thai driver would eventually finish behind his Russian colleague and outside of the points. Having suffered from a troubled start to life in Formula One, Australia will surely be a major boost to the confidence of Albon heading in the rest of the season.
Stuck very firmly at the rear of the field, reigning Formula Two champion George Russell would have a largely trying weekend in the woeful Williams team. Never able to achieve anything representative in such a difficult car, the Englishman did at least appear to have the advantage over star returnee Robert Kubica – however with such disarray at Williams, it is impossible to judge individual performances at this stage of the running.
So that’s it, F1 2019 is go. A new winner, some star rookies and one or two with a point to prove. Not a bad start, not bad at all…
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