With three races down, we look to have a gripping battle on our hands this season.
After 3 long years of Mercedes dominance, Ferrari look to finally have raised their game and instead of a title ‘fight’ between two team-mates, we are set to enjoy a real contest this season, with Hamilton versus Vettel, Mercedes versus Ferrari. Vettel and Hamilton have come home 1-2 in all three opening races of the season, with Vettel claiming two wins to Hamilton’s one. While the form of the two teams will likely rise and fall over the course of the season, the question of which driver walks away with the driver’s crown could actually be decided by the ‘number 2’ drivers, the Finn’s Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen.
So as we head to Russia, the question is; will it be Raikkonen or Bottas that gets into the mix and changes the course of the title battle? If either one of them finish ahead of the ‘No.1’ drivers (elect), a serious blow could be dealt with the remaining season looking so close between Ferrari and Mercedes.
Bottas has a great track record around Sochi. In the first Sochi Grand Prix in 2014 he was clearly best of the rest behind the dominant Mercedes pairing of Hamilton and Rosberg, qualifying his Williams in third place and following the two Mercedes drivers home to claim the final podium position, while Raikkonen struggled to ninth place in the poor 2014 Ferrari.
In 2015 Ferrari saw an improvement in form, and the race provided a great scrap between the two Finnish drivers. Bottas again delivered in qualifying, putting his Williams third on the grid, ahead of the Ferrari’s of Vettel and Raikkonen. Round 1 Valtteri! As the lights went out, both made clean getaways, with Raikkonen getting right onto Bottas gearbox and passing team-mate Vettel for fourth position into the first corner. Kimi switched to the inside on the long drag down to Turn 2, and as Bottas ran deep Kimi pounced up the inside, the pair running side by side through the corner, but with the momentum, now with Kimi he burst past into second place. Round 2 Kimi!
Behind them on track there was mayhem as Nico Hulkenberg spun his Force India around at Turn 2, ultimately collecting Marcus Ericcsons Sauber, with a safety car immediately deployed to bring a pause to the racing. When the safety car pulled in at the end of lap 3 it was Bottas who seized the initiative, judging the restart perfectly and pulling out of Kimi’s slipstream down into Turn 2 to retake third place! Round 3 Valtteri! Bottas stuck with the Mercedes, while a gap began to open back to Kimi, who had Sebastian Vettel glued to his rear wing in the second Ferrari! Bottas third place became second place on lap seven when race leader Rosberg dropped out of the race with mechanical trouble, with Bottas initially keeping new leader Hamilton in his sights, before the class of the Mercedes told and Lewis started to open a gap. A further safety car period on lap 12 caused by Romain Grosjean slamming his Lotus into the barriers at Turn 3 wiped out Bottas advantage over the Ferraris, and put him under pressure on the restart on lap 17.
Vettel now asserted his authority at Ferrari, immediately pulling alongside Raikkonen on the inside at Turn 2, with Raikkonen forced off the track to avoid contact, before meekly allowing Vettel through to take position. Bottas stayed ahead of Vettel until the pit stops, but after having to stop first on lap 27 due to tyre wear Bottas would lose the place to Vettel in the pits, with Bottas coming out in in traffic and Vettel able to make the time needed for a successful overcut. Kimi pitted next time around on lap 32, and as he emerged from the pits Ricciardo’s Red Bull and Bottas Williams flashed by, Kimi right on Bottas tail into Turn 2 as Bottas ran deep looking to find a way past Ricciardo. Kimi had the momentum again and looked to drag past Bottas, but found the Williams was too wide, Kimi just about avoiding taking his wing off on the Williams and having to back off!
Round 4 Valtteri! Kimi kept snapping at Bottas heels though as he looked for a way past, and on lap 36 he was through, Bottas losing momentum after he tried to hang around the outside of Ricciardo in Turn 3, and Kimi dived up the inside into Turn 4. Round 5 Kimi! Or so it seemed, but Bottas immediately took the place back, getting a better exit and pulling past Kimi on the run down to Turn 5, clearly ahead and moving back onto the racing line. Kimi wasn’t throwing in the towel, instead he threw his Ferrari back up the inside into Turn 5, the two cars running wheel to wheel on the exit, with Bottas just about hanging on!! Exhilarating stuff! Round 5 Valtteri! The two were moving through the cars who had taken advantage of the early safety car to put on tyres, and Bottas kept ahead as they passed first Ricciardo and then the Force India of Sergio Perez, with Perez looking to have lost what looked like a certain podium on the penultimate lap as first Bottas and then Raikkonen surged past. But of course, to finish first you must first finish! Kimi wasn’t giving up the battle for the final podium slot, and he made one last go on the last lap, but it all ended in tears, Kimi trying up the inside from a long way back on the run down to Turn 4, and as Bottas took his normal line he was spun around into the barriers by the Ferrari.
Bottas was out, and Kimi would limp home in fifth, before a time penalty for the collision dropped him further back. Valtteri had been leading the battle between the two Finns on points, but Kimi won with a knock-out blow in the final round!
Last year saw the two Finns again in the mix. Bottas was again the star in qualifying, taking a front row start from Raikkonen after trouble for Hamilton’s Mercedes and a grid penalty dropped Vettels Ferrari back. Kimi got the jump at the start, the Ferrari getting ahead of Bottas Williams. Another safety car for a first lap incident afforded Bottas the chance this time, and he retook the position from Kimi on the restart. This time though Kimi had learned the lesson from 2015, and despite another great race from Bottas in the Williams, this time Kimi used the pace of the Ferrari to get the job done, passing Bottas in the pits and ensuring there would be no repeat of the collision from the previous year. So Raikkonen took the final podium position behind the dominant Mercedes, with Bottas having to settle for fourth position.
Kimi will be under real pressure to deliver
This time around, Bottas will have a Mercedes at his disposal, and should look to be a real threat to not only Ferrari, but also possibly his team-mate Lewis Hamilton. Lewis will surely be hoping Valtteri can recapture just enough of his Sochi magic to be ahead of Vettel but behind the lead Mercedes, but Bottas will not have given up hope of his own title challenge, and if he can deliver another top class Sochi performance he could well blow the title race wide open. For Raikkonen, the pressure to perform remains, if he hopes to continue to be a part of the Scuderia for 2018, he needs to deliver a 2016 Russian Grand Prix performance, another one like 2015 might not be tolerated by Ferrari!