In Bahrain it looked though Mercedes had nailed their flag to the Lewis Hamilton mast, but the first European race of the season saw the Finn Valtteri Bottas bite back – and bite back hard.
The ex-Williams pilot was the epitome of calmness and precision all-weekend long and outpaced his more experienced team-mate from the moment the cars hit the track on Friday morning in Russia.
Once ahead the Mercedes man was unflustered, and never once looked like yielding to Sebastian Vettel in a tense final few laps to take his first Formula 1 win at the 81st attempt in his fourth race for his new team. The deficit in the standings might still be 10 points, but the balance of power at the Silver Arrow may have just tipped back towards the neutral zone.
Very little to choose between Ferrari & Mercedes
Ferrari had qualifying pace (claiming their first front row lockout since France 2008), but neither Kimi Raikkonen or Vettel could do anything to stop Bottas keeping a healthy lead for the majority of the 52 laps after the Finn pulled off the perfect getaway to leapfrog the Scuderia cars off the line.
The scoreboard now stands at 2-2 after four races of 2017 as the two have noticeably distanced themselves from Red Bull and the rest of the teams in the paddock. The fraternity moves on to Spain in two weeks time – a track Mercedes have dominated for pace in recent seasons. It will be a sign of how far Ferrari have come if they can beat them in Barcelona too.
It was another lacklustre weekend for Joylon Palmer
It might seem harsh or even hyperbole, but the Briton had done nothing in the opening three races to convince the critics, who were skeptical of Renault’s decision to retain him for 2017, that he is still worthy of his place in F1.
A poor race from a promising qualifying in Bahrain was backed up by just one corner of racing in Sochi after a coming together with Romain Grosjean. The Frenchman may have been more to blame on this occasion but Palmer was comfortably outclassed by team-mate Nico Hulkenberg in Qualifying and with the German scoring points it was another weekend wasted at the wrong end of the pack for the Brit.
Force India are still best of the rest
With Mercedes and Ferrari out front and Red Bull seemingly marooned as the third best team in the standings, it’s been the pink Force India cars of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez heading the midfield pack so far in 2017.
A seventh successive double-points finish for the team based at Silverstone is impressive going, and Ocon in particular once again demonstrated his quality with a fourth straight top-10 result after his move from Manor.
They have benefited somewhat from Lance Stroll’s struggles at Williams to be fourth in the constructors leaving Sochi, but a hard-working, still relatively young team fully deserves to be enjoying its best run in Formula One since the joining the grid in 2008.
Sochi 2017 will not go down as a classic
It’s fair to say the new regulations designed to increase overtaking and close racing took a bit of a pounding in Russia. Not one official pass on track was recorded during the 52 lap race, and only pit-stops and a frantic start saw any changes in the order. Sochi’s first corner was again the centre of attention from the start, with Romain Grosjean and Joylon Palmer coming together in the concertina at the opening turn. With the next round in Barcelona also historically a quiet one in terms of overtaking and wheel to wheel action the new plans for 2017 could well come under scrutiny once more. Just as well there have been three different race winners from four races so far this year.
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