A cool-headed Valtteri Bottas survived intense pressure from Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to claim an assured victory in Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Having played ‘second fiddle’ to world champion Hamilton for most of the season, the 28-year-old Finn was delighted to show he had the pace and poise to match and beat him at the season-ending twilight race in the desert.
“This is a really important win for me after having a pretty difficult start to the second half of the year,” said Bottas, who won two of the opening nine races of the season.
“I couldn’t be happier to end a season like this. Congratulations to Lewis on the title and congratulations to Sebastian (Vettel) for the second place.
“Hopefully I can do better next year.
“I was really managing the pace and the race. It was a nice feeling. The last five laps I started to go bit quicker and I am really pleased.
“We Finns don’t show much emotion, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have any. I am so happy.
“There has been so much support. I can’t show it too much, but I feel good.”
Like his predecessor as Hamilton’s teammate, the retired 2016 champion Nico Rosberg, Bottas clearly wanted to show that a strong end to one season may be the springboard to a dominant start to the next.
Rosberg delivered by winning three in a row at the end of 2015 and claiming the title in 2016 following a run of four wins at the start of that season.
The opening race of 2018 in Melbourne is on March 28. Bottas, as he said, plans to be ready.
In Sunday’s largely processional contest, Bottas started from pole position and led from lights to flag apart from a spell following his first pit stop when Hamilton was in control.
It was his third career victory, all of them recorded since he joined Mercedes to partner Hamilton in January following Rosberg’s unexpected exit.
Hamilton came home a comfortable second, four seconds behind Bottas, having eased off in the closing laps after abandoning his bid to pass him in the turbulent air created when following close to another car.
“Big congratulations to Valtteri, he did an amazing job to hold me off,” said Hamilton, who has developed a habit of easing off after winning his titles.
“It was a great race. I gave it everything. It is just so hard to overtake here.”
Later, he added: “We can celebrate tonight, but I don’t fancy it too much.
“We test on Tuesday and then I go to Malaysia and to Germany and then back to the UK.
“I will probably get some time off on the 18th and do some skiing, see the family and the dogs.”
Four-time champion Vettel finished a lonely third for Ferrari – his 99th career podium and 13th of the season.
“I tried very hard,” he said. “I had a good start, but I had nowhere to go. After three, four or five laps I couldn’t go any faster and from then it was pretty lonely.
“Lewis deserves to win the championship this year. I hate to say it, but he was the better man.”
Kimi Raikkonen was fourth in the second Ferrari ahead of Max Verstappen of Red Bull and Nico Hulkenberg, whose sixth-place finish assured Renault of sixth place in the constructors’ championship ahead of Toro Rosso.
Hulkenberg was handed a five-second penalty for running off the circuit to pass Sergio Perez of Force India – a stewards’ decision that was lambasted by Force India team boss Otmar Szafnauer.
“They gained a place in the constructors’ championship, which means more money for next year,” he said. “It makes a mockery of the sport to have it so inconsistent.”
Perez came home seventh ahead of Force India teammate Esteban Ocon, two-time champion Fernando Alonso of McLaren Honda and retirement-bound Felipe Massa, in his last F1 race, for Williams.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo, who was fourth on the grid, failed to finish after retiring his Red Bull for the third time in four outings. He had a hydraulics problem.
In the final championship standings, Hamilton scored 363 points to finish top of the drivers’ ahead of Vettel on 317, Bottas on 305 and Raikkonen on 205.
In the constructors’, Mercedes led the way with 668 points ahead of Ferrari on 522, Red Bull on 368 and Force India on 177.
Hamilton also became one of only a handful of driver to have scored points in every race of a season.
As the sun went down after another warm day at the Yas Marina Circuit, Bottas avoided repeating his poor start in Brazil two weeks earlier and pulled clear to lead from pole into Turn 1 ahead of Hamilton.
Behind them, Vettel stayed third ahead of Ricciardo and Raikkonen while, at the back of the field, Kevin Magnussen spun and recovered in his Haas.
Hamilton produced fastest laps to stay in touch with Bottas, who led by 1.5 seconds by Lap 8 and responded with fastest laps of his own.
The two Mercedes men were producing a duel at the front and were 2.5 seconds ahead of Vettel.
The two Silver Arrows continued to pull clear before the pit stops began, Bottas arriving for new tyres after 21 laps.
Hamilton inherited the lead and pushed before pitting himself after 24 laps, re-joining second again.
By then Ricciardo’s race was over after he had retired with a hydraulics problem, his third early shower in four races, moving Raikkonen was up to fourth.
At the front, Bottas appeared to be struggling on his new super-soft tyres with Hamilton applying pressure and reducing the gap to 0.9 seconds.
“Just be aware, Lewis is pushing,” was the understatement from Mercedes to Bottas.
Hamilton lapped in 1:41.7 while Bottas lapped in 1:42.4. His superior speed, however, did not mean he could find a way to pass his teammate in the hot and turbulent air behind him.
The pressure told on Hamilton when he ran over a kerb at Turn 17 and then, at the same place, went off track fully. Team boss Toto Wolff smiled, relaxed that both championships were won already.
This pushed Hamilton back to 1.8 seconds behind while behind him, Carlos Sainz had to retire when his front left wheel was not properly attached to his car by Renault in a pit stop.
Hamilton continued to deliver fast laps and cut the gap to 1.1 seconds, but demonstrably struggled to gain in the third sector through the marina and hotel complex.
He continued to push and with six laps remaining, he cut the gap to 0.5 seconds, but Bottas stayed cool as the champion loomed in his mirrors and hunted for a mistake by his teammate.
By this stage, Vettel was more than 20 seconds adrift, but 19 seconds clear of fourth-placed Raikkonen.
The German reeled off a fastest lap, but it was too late to challenge the Mercedes mastery and Bottas responded with one of his own with three laps to go.