After losing pole position to teammate Lewis Hamilton on Saturday, Bottas was peerless yesterday (Mar 17). He executed a lightning start to easily snatch the lead from Lewis at the first turn and never looked likely to relinquish it, dropping a place only temporarily during the pit stops.
It was an imperious opening for the Finn, who ended 2018 winless despite his teammate winning the world title, and he said it was a relief to find himself back into the winners circle.
“It was definitely my best race ever,” Bottas said. “I just felt so good, everything was under control and the car was so good today.
“Truly enjoyable… I’m so happy. I can’t wait for the next race.”
Bottas’s hunger to make his mark on the weekend was highlighted by a series of radio exchanges with his engineer late in the race about setting the fastest lap of the race, which in 2019 is worth one additional championship point.
Bottas was warned not to take too much out of his tyres as a precaution against a safety car, but when Max Verstappen took the fastest lap from him, Bottas couldn’t help himself, taking it back on the penultimate lap to score a total of 26 points for the weekend.
“I needed it,” Bottas said. “I had really strong pace and I wanted to get that in the end [though] it’s always a risk with worn tyres.”
Hamilton held second place but was operating a step below his teammate. After fending off an undercut attempt by Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel on lap 15, Hamilton’s main task was keeping Red Bull Racing’s Verstappen at a safe distance in the second stint on his degrading tyres.
The shadowboxing duel lasted until lap 49, when Verstappen ran off the track at the first turn, ensuring Mercedes a one-two finish.
“It’s a good weekend for the team, so I can be happy for everyone,” Hamilton said. “A fantastic job by everyone.
“It’s a great start to the year, more than we could’ve hoped for as a team.”
Hamilton said he had some ideas about where his deficit to Bottas sprung from, but conceded his start put him on the back foot.
“I’ll wait to see with my engineers to go through it,” he said. “It’s a bit frustrating when you’ve had a good weekend up to that point, but that’s how it goes.”
Verstappen’s mistake cost him a shot at Bottas, but the Dutchman had built a large enough gap to Vettel behind him to hold third place regardless, securing Red Bull Racing a strong result on its first outing with new power unit partner Honda.
“I had to overtake Seb to get onto the podium, which is not easy around here,” he said. “I was happy I pull the move off.
“To start the season on the podium, challenging the Mercedes car ahead, I think is a very positive start for us.”
Verstappen’s third-place finish in his Honda-powered RB15 was the first podium for the Japanese manufacturer since the 2008 British Grand Prix and its first since its return to Formula One in 2015.
Sebastian Vettel finished a perplexed fourth place and left to wonder why Ferrari’s preseason testing pace has failed to translate into a car fast enough to challenge Mercedes.
“Why are we so slow?” the German asked his pit wall deep in the final stint of the race. “We don’t know at the moment,” came the demoralising reply.
Vettel even came under a late assault for position by teammate Charles Leclerc, who endured a weekend of mixed form. The Monegasque botched a first-lap attempt to pass Vettel and lost touch with the leading pack after a lap-nine gravel excursion, but a switch to the hard tyre while his rivals opted for the medium compound turned out to be the quickest way forward, delivering him a fast finish.
Kevin Magnussen brought home eight points for sixth place on a bittersweet weekend for Haas. Though the Anglo-American team marked itself out as having the quickest car of the midfield, it lost its second driver, Romain Grosjean, to a loose wheel in the race for the second year in succession, throwing away a likely six valuable points.
Nico Hulkenberg moved up to seventh place for Renault, giving the French manufacturer something to smile about after failing to qualifying in the top 10. His teammate, Australian Daniel Ricciardo, retired from the race as a consequence of first-lap damage.
The German held off Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo in a tight scrap for the minor podium places. Raikkonen finished eighth, followed closely by Racing Point’s Lance Stroll and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat in ninth and tenth.