The 2019 version of Valtteri Bottas is leading a Formula 1 championship for the first time sure, he’s only one Grand Prix into the season, he concedes, but it was a big one writes John Pye for the AP.
Bottas started from the front row of the grid for the first time at the Australian Grand Prix — formerly his least favourite F1 circuit — and beat Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to the first corner.
He never let Hamilton back into the race, a striking contrast with 2018. He was the loyal No. 2 at Mercedes last season and helped his teammate to a fifth world championship, finishing 2018 in fifth spot — a performance that put his own seat in jeopardy.
The 29-year-old Finn kept his emotions in check after what he described as the drive of his life to win the Australian GP on Sunday, his fourth F1 title and his first since 2017 — the year he won three.
“Well done Valtteri, you won!” came a composed voice over the team radio as Bottas took the checkered flag. “That’s payback from last year Valtteri.”
A combination of mechanical problems, some bad luck and team instructions thwarted Bottas’ opportunities last season when Hamilton was so dominant.
Bottas had never finished higher than third in Australia and was eighth here 12 months ago after qualifying in 10th place.
In qualifying this weekend, he held the lap record temporarily until Hamilton swooped on the last lap and with seconds to go to take that from him, along with pole position.
It didn’t worry Bottas, who did a lot of soul-searching over the winter break and has come back physically and mentally stronger.
He gradually built his margin to more than 20 seconds to Hamilton, and decided chasing the new bonus point for fastest racing lap — new in F1 this year — was worth the risk, even on old tires.
Message from the crew: “The only way we can lose this race is by not having rubber for a safety car.”
Result? He produced the quickest lap of the race and collected an extra point for the weekend, giving him a championship lead with 26 points.
His winning margin was emphatic over Hamilton, who held off a fast-finishing Max Verstappen for Red Bull. The Ferraris, widely tipped to outpace everyone, were a distance fourth and fifth.
Big Question: Can Valtteri maintain his stellar form for the entire season?