Tuesday, Mar 19 01:44pm
AUTHOR: Richard Gee

Column: A new hope for Formula 1, the fans, and Valtteri Bottas

There may have been no Kiwi in the hot seat to follow but it wasn’t all bad watching the first Formula 1 race of 2019 from the couch.


New rules, new aero, some new technical stuff to get my old head around and some new ace pretending to be Valtteri Bottas meant I had plenty to think about after last weekend’s Australian Grand Prix.


Am I alone in thinking that yet again the GP itself lacked any real excitement? Front wing changes which reduced the number of aerodynamic appendages were going to help, they told us. Driving closer together seemed an obvious result especially in the mid field. More passing, well, less so. As ever the teams had clawed back what downforce they had lost to the regulations and gained more on top. And also as ever, a reduction in appendages in one part of the car saw a whole new crop sprout up elsewhere. Even uglier cars, even less passing was my conclusion.




Spark Sport debuts


I’m not sure quite what to make of the change in broadcast arrangements for Formula 1. The feed is identical to what we’ve all watched before, but it now comes via yet another subscription, yet another app and in my case another few hundred bucks of technology to do something called ‘airplay’ to a TV screen so I didn’t have to squint at the iPad and hold it up to my face to see. In 40 years of watching Formula 1 I’ve always simply had to switch channels to carry on watching. Switching technologies was new to me and it wasn’t without its problems. After speaking to Britney and Whitney in Spark’s very prompt Live Chat area trying to figure out why I got a blank screen with just sound, my third on-line Good Samaritan Tom finally solved it for me (and I suspect a few other techno-dullards).


I’m kind of glad he did. When it was working it was absolutely fine. Impressive in fact. We found the ideal spot in our house with rurally delivered 3G and a Wi-Fi system that reaches the shed but not the living room to get almost continual coverage, though it did disappear occasionally and needed a reboot. I decided to watch the race itself on DUKE to be sure but moments after I switched it on I went back to the Spark app. Just can’t stand the coverage being peppered with ads unfortunately. Bugger that. Anyway, whilst we will remain at the mercy of our rural internet, I did think the platform was generally very good and I’m sure will only get better. And yes I’ll be spending more money every month. Not that I think $20 a month is bad for what’s on offer at all, but I still have to have the other lot as well so I can watch Supercars.


Bah Humbug.


Whether you were watching the broadcast on DUKE or on some other sort of set up on your device then no doubt you would have spotted Esteban Ocon watching from the Mercedes pit garage. Regardless of contracts, his presence on the side lines and not behind the wheel is simply bizarre given his level of talent in my opinion. He's more than just a keen and enthusiastic spectator of course. He's the Mercedes reserve driver and the next in line should Bottas not deliver or Hamilton retire or anything untoward happen to either in the meantime. The first scenario is the one which Ocon is probably relying on, of course. And from his perspective, he was probably a bit disappointed with what he saw.




Bottas v2.0 leaves the rest scratching their heads


For too long Valtteri Bottas has been a rear gunner for Hamilton, dutifully sitting behind and generally at most places a tenth or two off the multiple world champ’s pace. That seemed OK until the Ocon situation arose last year, and everyone noticed that when Hamilton wasn’t quite there, neither was Bottas, which was sort of his job. It wasn’t unreasonable after winter testing for Ocon to have been thinking it would simply be a matter of time before a Mercedes race seat was his. And while that may still be the case, the most clear cut fact from the entire Australian Grand Prix weekend was that Bottas won’t be going without a fight, or a title.


For me this was – by some margin – the best Valtteri Bottas we have seen in Formula 1. Bulked up over the winter thanks to a higher minimum driver weight rule and unshaven for a few weeks, his street fighter look was matched with a remarkable improvement in speed relative to Hamilton. And while Lewis was top dog in the practice sessions, it seemed Bottas found – or revealed – another gear in his performance when it mattered in qualifying. His first lap in Q3 was stunning and it took everything from Hamilton to better it by just a tenth or so to grab pole position. Undaunted, Bottas made the better start and simply sailed off into the distance with an impressive and consistent margin of performance over Hamilton. He dominated in an identical car to a degree that may have happened in the Brit’s career, but I can’t recall it.




Apparently disregarding team orders, he also went for the extra point for fastest lap towards the end of the race – a new and interesting development in the Formula 1 rules for this year – and bagged that too. Such was his advantage when he clocked that lap, some 25 seconds, that he could have even popped into the pits for a new set of soft tyres to use for the job, but he didn't need them. Soon afterwards there were shouts about Hamilton having floor damage, and a picture or two were released of what appeared to be very minor damage. He still had enough pace to raise the game to fend off Max Verstappen's advances after all and was quick throughout. Just not quick enough.


A one-off for Bottas? May be. Was Hamilton's pace genuinely compromised? I doubt it. Damage to the underfloor? I'd wager superficial effect at the very worst. In short then, there are interesting times ahead at least in the sense that Bottas has clearly raised his game for a title shot, is prepared to disregard Toto Wolff's team orders and probably believes this is his last year at Mercedes regardless of how he performs. Shades of Rosberg vs Hamilton to come? Don’t write it off.




Forget Ferrari. Honda, here we come!


Verstappen’s form in the Honda-powered Red Bull was another welcome surprise. Who would have thought that when Red Bull finally severed their long ties with Renault and signed up with Honda that in the first race the new combo would have the legs off Ferrari and be nibbling at the world champion's heels on the way to a podium finish? I think even the most fervent optimists at Red Bull would have taken that if offered. It was Honda's first podium of the hybrid era and you'd imagine there were many happy faces in the Honda and Red Bull camps (and a few embarrassed one's elsewhere) when Verstappen breezed by Vettel with his pass for third place. The disappointment on the Ferrari pit wall was blatantly obvious and for the Italian giants, Australia would have been nothing short of a total disaster.


Lest we forget, ahead of the first practice session in Melbourne, Ferrari were the clear favourites, more so than for many a year. Most of those 'in the know' reckoned they had between a third and a half second advantage per lap over their Mercedes rivals. But testing, as it so often does, was not a barometer of what was to happen over the Australian weekend. And we've been there before, haven't we? It seems every year in testing Mercedes deny completely any notion of sandbagging, then turn up and smoke the lot of them.


This time around, it seemed different though, especially as Mercedes had rushed out a massive upgrade package on its 2019 car after the first test. The outcome, however, was the same. Mercedes at the front and Ferrari left floundering behind in a state of shock. And it did almost seem like shock. Young Charles Leclerc had more race pace than Vettel too, but it seemed Team Red just couldn’t bring itself to make the call and let the youngster by for a shot at a podium. That wouldn’t have been good for relations with Seb so early in a season and one senses some damage limitation on Ferrari's part there. There’s more sparks to come there for sure. Leclerc looks like the real deal.


Lando Norris

The highs


The extra point for fastest lap (only open to the top 10 finishers) is a novelty addition from this year I approve of. 21 races is 21 potential extra points and it was interesting to hear engineers on Bottas’ radio saying others were messing round to find their qualifying ‘party modes’ late in the race in an effort to secure the extra point. All that added a bit of interest for me for sure.


I was also impressed with young gun Lando Norris, leading the charge for a much better performing McLaren. I suspect if he keeps delivering performances like he did in Australia, the team will quit making such a fuss about Fernando Alonso. Let’s hope the Zak Brown-Alonso love affair lasts long enough to bring him down as a wild card for the Bathurst 1000, however.


Norris, and the other racers who have driven in the Toyota Racing Series down here – Daniil Kvyatt and Lance Stroll – got the thumbs up from me. I’ve always been a Kvyatt fan and it was good to see him fending off Pierre Gasly over the course of the race. Stroll too, turned many heads demonstrating a solid advantage over Racing Point/Force India incumbent Sergio Perez in their first encounter. Both performances can be considered to be major surprises.


Charles Leclerc


The lows 


Though Ferrari topped the disappointments, Robert Kubica wasn’t too far behind. He was hopelessly off the pace from the word go. Sure, the Williams is even by relative standards a dog, but Kubica was a healthy margin away from the team’s other driver George Russell. Polish racer’s recovery from the terrible injuries he received in his rallying accident have been nothing short of remarkable and I was happy enough to see him find his way back into the top flight.


I was also pretty anti all the haters and armchair experts saying he wouldn’t be able to cut the mustard. Let’s hope he gets better though and fast, because he’s so far doing nothing but proving those doubters correct. Gasly was a major disappointment too, comprehensively smashed by Verstappen regardless of the post-race Red Bull PR shenanigans claiming a ‘strong race’. That was nonsense.



Best of all …


A Bottas win from a guy who’s clearly reinvented himself was a great outcome for Formula 1. Sure, the race could have been better, but what it did do was raise a whole heap of questions that are going to take a wee while to answer. Bring on Bahrain!