MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Valterri Bottas can’t really explain how he got from playing the loyal lieutenant to Lewis Hamilton and failing to win a race last season, to upstaging his Mercedes teammate for victory in Formula One’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
A lot of soul-searching over the winter break, some rally car driving and a few drinking sessions helped transform Bottas’ approach to racing in 2019, with an immediate and profound result.
The 29-year-old Finn surged from No. 2 on the grid to beat five-time world champion Hamilton to the first corner, and stayed in front of his teammate the whole way Sunday to win by 20.886 seconds. It was his fourth GP title, and first since 2017.
Bottas also picked up the bonus point for the fastest lap, which has been reintroduced to F1 for the first time in six decades, to collect 26 championship points for the weekend.
“It was definitely my best race ever. It felt so good,” said Bottas, who finished the 58-lap race in 1 hour, 25 minutes, 27.325 seconds. “Truly enjoyed it.”
Albert Park was previously one of Bottas’ least-preferred circuits — he started 10th last year and his previous best result was a third-place finish in 2017 — but now it’s among his favorites.
The fast lap was icing on the cake and a calculated risk on old tires: “Definitely, it’s a new rule for this year. I had really strong pace, I wanted to go for that in the end.”
Max Verstappen was closing in on Hamilton toward the end but had to settle for third, 1.634 seconds further back in his Red Bull.
One of the biggest surprises was how far back the Ferraris were, particularly after being the quickest cars in testing.
Two-time defending champion Sebastien Vettel started from third but was overtaken on the outside by Verstappen on the 30th lap and finished fourth, one spot ahead of teammate Charles Leclerc.
“I had to beat Seb to get onto the podium, which is not easy around here,” Verstappen said. “Happy to pull that move off — then challenging for second.
“To start the season on the podium, challenging the Mercedes in front of me, it’s a really good start to the season.”
Worryingly for Ferrari, four-time world champion Vettel was 35 seconds behind Verstappen’s Red Bull, and Leclerc had a few driver errors on his first weekend with the team.
Kevin Magnussen was sixth for Haas, Nico Hulkenberg placed seventh for Renault and 2007 world champion, the 39-year-old Kimi Raikkonen, placed eighth in first drive for Alfa Romeo Racing.
Hamilton, who won pole position for the sixth successive year and eighth time overall in Melbourne, again had to settle for second.
“It was a good weekend for Mercedes,” Hamilton said. “Valtteri drove an incredible race today. Really deserved it.”
Three drivers failed to finish, with local hope Daniel Ricciardo getting into trouble moments after leaving the grid when he tried to overtake while charging to the first corner and losing the front wing of his new Renault.
Robert Kubica was the last of 17 drivers who finished, but was content to get his first drive back in F1 since 2010 over and done with. He missed eight seasons because of a serious right hand injury sustained in a rallying crash but is back with Williams in 2019.
Bottas last season faded to finish fifth in the championship after a combination of mechanical problems and team instructions meant he didn’t win a GP. He was ordered to concede to Hamilton while in good position in Russia, but he’s back on level terms now.
“We’re all here starting a new season,” he said. “Both me and Lewis will want to fight this season, for sure, against each other, and against everyone.”
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said he’d noticed a change in Bottas’ attitude, and is expecting big things this season.
“He came back very strong from the winter … rediscovered the joy of driving,” Wolff said. “I heard … that he got drunk a few times, to forget (2018), so it’s a good start. I expect Valtteri to be the strongest this year, the strongest Valtteri we’ve seen.”
Bottas couldn’t pinpoint exactly what changed in his preparation, but is harnessing the energy regardless.
“It’s difficult to explain, honestly, what’s been going on inside my head,” he said. “Definitely something changed in terms of the way I feel about things — in life in general, and in racing.
“I felt good today in the car today and yesterday, and that’s all that matters.”
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