“I don’t know what just happened,” said Valtteri Bottas after totally dominating the 2019 Formula 1 season-opener. It was about much more than winning the start against Mercedes team-mate and polesitter Lewis Hamilton, although that was of course a critical component.
But there was relentless brutality about his pace and the way he ran his race that suggested some sort of inner conviction. It was suggested too in his communication with the team. When the team told him it was not about to risk pitting him for a fresh set of tyres near the end in order to be sure of the extra point for fastest lap, he replied: “Ok, but I want those 26 points.”
In other words, if it wasn’t going to pit him, he was demanding the necessary aggressive engine mode for the ultimate lap. Hamilton – over 20sec behind by the end – was demanding the same, for the same reason. They were both given the modes. Bottas’ best was over 0.4sec faster, as Hamilton struggled with oversteer from a floor damaged – probably over a kerb – on lap four.
If there were any doubts that this was a badass version of the nice guy, Bottas addressed his previous detractors on his slow down lap. “To whom it may concern, f**k you.” A few minutes later he was out of the car and Mr Nice again, but feeling – as he said – uncertain about what part of himself he had just accessed.
“I recall the young boy who asked me for a meeting in 2008,” said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff. “It was snowing in Vienna when we met and he was asking me for advice. He dominated Formula Renault Europe the following season, against some very good drivers, including Daniel Ricciardo, sometimes by an outrageous margin. I saw again that young man today.”
That was one story; the other was the under-performance of Ferrari. Around a low grip, bumpy track very different to Barcelona, the SF90 simply wasn’t working. “It was not balanced, it struggled with the tyres and none of the different set-ups we tried worked,” surmised Mattia Binotto. It was noticeable that it was running a lot of front wing angle and GPS analysis confirmed that most of the time loss was in Turns One, Three and 13 – i.e. the slow, big steering-lock corners leading onto straights. Meaning it was slow onto the straights and at the end of them. Even with all its front wing angle used up, it still had a front-end grip shortfall.
This and some tactical complications saw Sebastian Vettel overtaken for the final podium place by the Red Bull-Honda of Max Verstappen.