The first win is almost invariably the hardest to achieve. Many drivers hit a glass ceiling in Formula 1, where points and even podiums are regularly scooped up, while the race win remains elusive.
After 11 podiums from 81 races, Valtteri Bottas finally broke through that barrier on Sunday to clinch his first career victory in fine style. His fourth race for Mercedes and one which could prove to be a turning point in the unfolding 2017 narrative.
Bottas may be about to give Mercedes’ management a headache.
Post-race analysis and discussion seemed to somewhat unfairly downplay the enormity of Bottas’ achievement on Sunday in Sochi. It feels wrong to label a Mercedes victory as an underdog triumph, but given how the Russian Grand Prix weekend played out, it is not far from the truth.
Ferrari clinched their first front-row lockout since the French Grand Prix in 2008. To put that into perspective, Coldplay had just released ‘Viva la Vida’, Bush was still President and Force India was finding their feet in Formula 1 last time it was an all-red front row.
Most thought that the Scuderia would run and hide on Sunday based on their FP2 pace. Vettel would take home the big cup, Raikkonen would settle for second and Mercedes would have a difficult debrief on Monday morning. However, Bottas was about to intervene.
After taking the lead, his opening stint was stunning. Even the mighty Ferrari were unable to live with his pace. The switch to the supersoft tyres mid-race swung the pendulum of performance back in Ferrari’s favour and with Vettel on fresher tyres in the closing stages, Bottas faced an offensive.
The final ten laps were tense from my sofa, let alone for the man in Car 77. His lock-up at Turn 13 – the only mistake Bottas made all afternoon – only added to the enormity of the challenge. The vibrations caused by his now hexagonal front tyres were clear to see during on-board shots.
Regardless, he maintained his composure. This was a vintage-Bottas performance. Back in 2014, he truly announced himself at Hockenheim, in a race where he held off a fast-charging Lewis Hamilton in the closing stages to seal a career-best second place. This duel in Russia had echoes of that afternoon, but with seriously higher stakes.
After a tough first three races for the Silver Arrows, the real Bottas is back, having clinched victory in what will surely be one of the hardest races of his career.
His achievement and team-mate Hamilton’s comparatively dire weekend in Sochi, could signal a challenging few months for the bigwigs of Brackley.
Bottas now lies a slender ten points adrift of triple champion Hamilton. Given that the talk heading into the weekend had been regarding Bottas’ impending number two status within the team, that margin will sit uncomfortably with some. Hamilton is one ‘off-weekend’ away from slipping behind his new teammate in the standings, surely then relinquishing any claims he could have to number one status.
Meanwhile, Sebastian Vettel continues to assert his dominance at Ferrari, establishing himself as the clear title hope. Kimi Raikkonen is to Vettel what Mike Pence was to Donald Trump; a running-mate with the potential to make up one-half of the winning ticket.
The situation at Mercedes is unclear and that could prove crucial come November. Bottas’ new found form could cause Mercedes – and specifically Hamilton – serious issues.
Having two drivers capable of winning races and mounting a championship challenge could be considered a good problem to have, but not in a year where the main rivals are wearing different colours.