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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 April 2019

Australian GP: Valtteri Bottas must focus on consistency to challenge Lewis Hamilton for F1 title

Rest and recuperation key to Finn's domination in Melbourne, but next step has to be to main that level every week

It is amazing what a holiday and a chance to recharge the batteries can do.

When Valtteri Bottas left Yas Marina Circuit after the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November, the final round of the 2018 season, he looked to be a spent force both physically and mentally.

He had finished a distant fifth as his Mercedes-GP world champion teammate Lewis Hamilton triumphed and looked throughly dispirited in his post-race interviews.

He talked of still believing he could beat Hamilton, but it felt as if he was almost trying to convince himself this was still the case as much as the interviewer.

It summed up an ultimately miserable campaign for the Finn, who had become the first Mercedes driver in six years to go a whole year without winning at least once.

Yet fast forward to Sunday and Bottas has started 2019 in superb fashion, dominating the opening race in Australia to lead the drivers’ championship for the first time in his career.

It was not just the fact he won, but how he did it, that stood out here.

He emphatically out-paced Hamilton in a fair fight and beat the five-time world champion by 20 seconds.

Hamilton had been on the pole, but Bottas, starting second, got the better getaway and led into Turn 1 at the start.

That would be as close as Hamilton would get to his teammate for the rest of the afternoon as Bottas charged away.

He was faster then Hamilton on each of the first 10 laps as he opened up an advantage of three seconds and the gap kept on growing throughout the afternoon.

Bottas has been Hamilton’s teammate since 2017 and he has beaten him before in a straight fight, but never by this kind of margin.

The statistic that he was winless in 2018 while accurate does not completely tell the whole story.

Misfortune cost Bottas victories in China and Azerbaijan, while team orders denied him in Russia.

Those were all good drives but nothing compared to the levels he achieved in Australia 2019.

He controlled the race in Melbourne and such was his speed that he was able to set the fastest lap, earning the extra bonus point that has been introduced this season, on the penultimate circuit of the event.

The challenge now for Bottas is to achieve this kind of level of performance consistently and prove it is not an one-off.

One race win does not win a championship and he will need many displays of the equivalent of Melbourne if he is to be Finland’s fourth world champion after Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen.

Beating Hamilton once is impressive but doing it week in and week out for the majority of the next 20 races is the goal he must seek to achieve.

In the past two years Bottas was unable to do that. In 2017 he was 58 points adrift of Hamilton over the course of the season and last year he was 161, so the scale of the task is clear to see.

Hamilton put a brave face on his loss. It is the fourth successive year that he has started on pole and finished as runner-up in Australia.

Given he went on to win the title the past two years despite that shows this is not a devastating setback.

If Bottas repeats this display at the next round in Bahrain on March 31 and is victorious again then Hamilton might be more concerned.

Valtteri Bottas proved unstoppable in his Mercedes-GP car at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on Sunday. Quinn Rooney / Getty Images
Valtteri Bottas proved unstoppable in his Mercedes-GP car at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on Sunday. Quinn Rooney / Getty Images

He clearly was not as comfortable with the set up on his F1 W10 chassis as his teammate but he will be encouraged overall.

He was still able to beat the rest of the field, holding off Max Verstappen’s Red Bull Racing and comfortably defeating both Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc.

Bottas showed what the car was really capable of and it was a demoralising weekend for the other nine teams on the grid as the German marque made a strong statement of intent in their bid to win a record-equalling sixth successive constructors’ crown this year.

It was not a thrilling Australian Grand Prix in terms of track action. But it sets up some fascinating narratives for the months ahead.

All eyes were on if it would be Ferrari v Mercedes but for now it is Bottas v Hamilton, with the question of how quickly the world champion can hit back.

Updated: March 17, 2019 02:28 PM

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