Valtteri Bottas comes of age to hold off Sebastian Vettel and take victory at Austrian Grand Prix

The Finn led the field home as Lewis Hamilton managed to minimise the damage of his lowly grid position by finishing fourth just behind Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo in third

David Tremayne
Red Bull Ring
Sunday 09 July 2017 17:30
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Valtteri Bottas held off the challenge of Sebastian Vettel to take the win
Valtteri Bottas held off the challenge of Sebastian Vettel to take the win

Valtteri Bottas won the Russian GP, but it was here in Austria that the young Finn truly came of age as a Grand Prix racer.

The rain that was anticipated at the start of the Austrian GP never materialised, and for a some time much of the excitement a record crowd had gathered to witness was missing too. But this was another of those slow-burn 2017 races. Bottas owned the first half for Mercedes, striding confidently into the lead from pole position after a blistering start, then controlling Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari as team-mate Lewis Hamilton struggled to recover from a lowly grid position. But in the second half it was Vettel who was in charge and on a charge, and when the boot was on the other foot in the closing stages, he was kicking hard with it.

On Pirelli’s ultrasoft tyres, Bottas opened a lead of eight seconds by the time Vettel opted to pit for the supersofts on the 34th lap. But when Bottas finally switched to them seven laps later Vettel had built a head of steam as he felt his Ferrari coming alive beneath him on the harder-compound rubber. When Bottas was back up to speed by lap 42, his advantage over Vettel had shrunk to just 2.8s, and he had to overtake Kimi Raikkonen in the other Ferrari, who was leading because he had yet to pit. Suddenly Mercedes were not looking quite so confident.

Raikkonen duly pitted on lap 44, and from then on it was a straight fight between Bottas and Vettel. At first the gap shrank gently, a tenth here and there, which Bottas would often restore with a slightly quicker lap. The gap was 3.7s on lap 58, but then it began shrinking quite markedly, and when it got as low as 1.9s by the 65th lap, with only sixth left, it was clear that Bottas was no longer controlling the lead. A good look showed the dark bands of blistered rubber on his tyres that spelled trouble.

Vettel smelled blood in the water, and the last two or three laps were likely the toughest of Bottas’ young life.

“I was told he was in trouble,” Vettel said with glee. “In the first stint I was struggling to feel the car, but in the second I was much happier with it. The car really came alive, and for a while I was catching him little by little. But then he started to struggle and I really started to close in. The backmarkers cost me some time and really I needed one more lap. I could see he was struggling to get up the hill after the start, but we ran out of time. It’s frustrating to finish only half a second behind the winner, because obviously I wanted to win. But nevertheless, it’s good.”

Bottas admitted that thought of his Russian victory crossed his mind. Back then they’d played a game of nip and tuck and he had won by six tenths of a second. Now they did exactly the same, with exactly the same outcome.

“I had a bit of Russian déjà vu,” he laughed. “The problem was I had a massive blister on the left rear tyre and near the end it was hard to control the pace and the backmarkers were difficult. But we held on, so a massive thanks to the team.”

Later Vettel traduced a different Mercedes driver this week by casting doubt on the legality of Bottas’ start and stated that he chose to not to believe the hard evidence that convinced the race stewards that Bottas had not transgressed. The immutable proof was supplied by the same FOM timing that has faithfully and accurately recorded each of Vettel’s own pole positions, wins and fastest laps, which confirmed that the Finn had been ‘positive’ – in other words his car had not moved until the red start lights had gone out and was thus fully legal.

Like much of his race, Bottas had judged it perfectly, and made what he would later describe as, “the start of my life.”

Behind them, Daniel Ricciardo and Hamilton were likewise locked in battle. It had been a tougher race than the Englishman had been expecting, having had to start eighth after a gearbox penalty and choosing to qualify on the supersoft tyres. In theory, according to Pirelli, that ought to have given him the perfect strategy, running longer on the more durable rubber, then using the faster tyres when they would be less stressed by fuel load. But that reckoned without too much front wing, which made his Mercedes oversteer in the second stint. He fought that, while trying to reel in the Red Bull driver, whose partner Max Verstappen had been taken out by his energy drink stablemate Daniil Kvyat – right in front of his army of orange-hued fans in the first corner.

Bottas took the glory as teammate Hamilton finished fourth 

After he had disposed of the Force Indias of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez, and Romain Grosjean’s Haas, and closed in on Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari, Hamilton’s tyres were finished before his rivals’ softer compounds, so he was the first major runner to pit, on lap 31. In the closing stages he managed to battle strongly enough to set fastest laps and hone in on Ricciardo’s third place, but could never really launch a challenge. On lap 70 they were side-by-side going into Turn 4, but Ricciardo had the inside line and held firm to take his fifth consecutive podium finish.

“In the last few laps when it was close with Lewis I just stuck to my braking points,” Ricciardo said. “On the second to last lap he got closest, as he had the DRS and a good exit and the run to Turn 4, so I wasn’t going to brake if I didn’t need to, but I believe it was clean and fair.” It was; he had the inside line, and that was as close to the podium as Hamilton would get.

"It was definitely a really good race. It was actually really positive and I don't think the points really reflect that," Hamilton said. "I worked so hard to close the gap but he defended position really well and I don't think I could have done any better. It's not great, but it could be 30-something point difference today. Of course it's a hit when you take the penalty and start eighth instead of third, but it's not the end of the world. I got the best points I could.”

Hamilton trails Vettel by 20 as they head into his home grand prix at Silverstone this week, 171 to 151. And Bottas is now only 15 points adrift of him after his recent run of podium finishes.

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