Bottas proves he belongs in 2017 title fight

If there were any lingering doubts about Valtteri Bottas' ability to be a contender in this year's title fight, the Finn's maiden win in Sochi did a lot to silence them.

One race after being asked to move over for Lewis Hamilton as he struggled for pace in Bahrain, Bottas was the stronger of the two Mercedes drivers for the whole weekend. The Finn had arrived in Russia fielding -- and brushing off -- questions about the possibility of becoming No.2 driver behind Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes. Hamilton and Mercedes played down the prospect of team orders becoming a regular feature of the 2017 campaign but the feeling in the paddock ahead of the weekend was that Bottas needed to come out swinging in Russia.

But, as he made clear again after his win, Bottas had not been dwelling on the bigger picture.

"It's only the beginning of the year, so it's always difficult to draw conclusions how is it going to be until the end," he said. "That's why I wasn't too worried with the gap to the front which, before this weekend was 30 points I think. That kind of gap has been gone in the past in a few races so that's OK.

"I think it's way too early to look at the championship in detail. We are focusing on getting the car better. That will give us more wins, more and more points with both cars. It's very, very early in the season. Four races down, 16 to go. That's a lot so things are going to change. Any problems with anything will be met in due course."

Mercedes had been in a deflated mood on Saturday evening, having seen Ferrari steal their tried-and-tested party trick of finding pace in Q3 and locking out the front row. With Sochi's smooth asphalt offering almost no variation in strategy and Ferrari delivering ominous long-run pace in practice, the start was crucial. Bottas seized the moment, jumping both Ferraris on the run down to Turn 2 for the lead of the race.

As the early stages of the race unfolded, it was clear Mercedes would not have the benefit of the other car putting Ferraris under pressure from behind, as Hamilton -- whose car had finished qualifying with a damaged floor -- faded, nursing an overheating car he had already been struggling to tame for much of the weekend.

The first stint was intriguing at best, but not thrilling, with Bottas' lead growing to as high as five seconds as the pit-stop window approached. Mercedes called in the race leader on lap 27, exactly the mark tyre supplier Pirelli had suggested in order to maximise a one-stopper. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari did the only thing they could do to put pressure on the Finn -- extend the stint. But it did not work -- after a sluggish stop, Vettel emerged 4.3s behind Bottas (he'd been 2.4s behind when the Finn had pitted on lap 27) and it looked like Bottas had one hand on a maiden grand prix trophy.

Everything changed on lap 38, with Bottas snatching a brake and locking up at Turn 11, running wide and narrowly avoiding an early trip to the TV media pen. With a big flat spot on both tyres, the gap tumbled rapidly -- 3.065s, 2.264s, 1.858s, 1.513s, 1.442s over the next five laps. Vettel's red Ferrari was now a looming presence in Bottas' rear mirrors and, with 10 laps to go, it seemed unlikely the Mercedes driver could hold on with his wounded super-softs.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, under no illusions about the extent of the damage to Bottas' front tyres, feared the worst.

"He locked both front tyres and flat-spotted them," Wolff said. "And our vibration metrics showed that it was pretty severe damage to the tyres, which harmed his performance at the end. And it was a bit of a stressful moment. But he kept it together."

At this point, Bottas, not only nursing the flat-spotted tyres but also trying to find a way through lapped traffic, told Mercedes he wanted "less talking on the radio". Getting back into the rhythm he had before the lock-up was essential, as he explained after the race.

"I lost some time during one lap, the team was asking me to go forward with the brake bias for the tyre temperatures which was affected by the flat spot. I also had a little bit of traffic. This track, there's so much pressure on the rhythm. If you can get the car in the rhythm then you can be so quick here and get consistent lap times but if you lose it then it shows in your lap times here and I kind of lost the rhythm for a couple of laps with backmarkers...

"Then once I was clear again, I was able to focus on the job itself to get the tyre temperatures back up and get the pace. I was also asking for a bit of radio silence from the team, just to get focus on every single corner perfectly, every lap and losing minimum time with the back markers."

Vettel's charge appeared to fade in between laps 43 and 47, before the championship leader set up a grandstand finish -- suddenly turning in two laps in the low 1:37.3s to move to within the DRS range he had been chasing since Bottas' mistake. It was game on. As Bottas approached the Williams of Felipe Massa, Vettel cut the gap to 0.9s on lap 50, before dropping it to 0.7s at the start of the penultimate lap. On a circuit which makes following difficult only a Bottas mistake or a clumsy intervention from Massa looked likely to deny the Finn a victory.

In the end, Massa did play a role, allowing Bottas past into Turn 2 on the final lap -- by which point Vettel was 0.6s behind -- but then taking the corner ahead of the Ferrari driver, robbing Vettel of the final opportunity of passing. Vettel fumed at Massa after the race and Mercedes boss Wolff joked he owed the Brazilian driver a beer, but he also made it clear Bottas had been hampered by traffic too, with Carlos Sainz and Lance Stroll helping to bring the championship leader closer late on.

Wolff also said the win was just what Bottas needed after a topsy-turvy start to life at Mercedes, which included pole in Bahrain but the team orders scenario at the same race, as well as a spin in China.

"It's crazy that someone speculates about his position after three races," Wolff said. "You need to give the guy time. He is an outstanding driver, there wasn't one year where he wasn't performing compared to his teammate. To be Lewis Hamilton's teammate, take over the reigning world champion's car and I think he has done a very good job. He has been on pole once and won the race today with a lot of pressure from Sebastian behind. Fantastic start, fantastic pace on the ultra-soft and I think he is a very deserved winner."

A deserved winner is exactly right -- Bottas' win was not the drive of a man feeling the pressure of expectation or withering under the challenge posed by a teammate of Hamilton's stature. It was a driver seizing the day from a team who had the pace to win and then withstand pressure from a revitalised Vettel looking every bit as good as he did in 2013.

As Bottas went on to say, it also proved he has what it takes to be a regular visitor to the top step this year and beyond.

"For sure, getting the first win is something special," Bottas concluded on Sunday evening. "You always believe in yourself because there's no point being here or doing this if you don't believe in yourself, if you think that you are not able to win then definitely you should stay home. But, actually getting the confirmation, getting the actual result matters in this world. How many points, how many races you can win, how many times you be on the podium. That's the name of the game.

"And getting that first win, gives me confidence that I can do it even though I've always knew I had the ability. But now it's done, I just want to do it again and again. It's not that simple this year. It's going to be always a massive fight and at least for the first half of the year it's going to be a fight between four different drivers ..."