Valtteri Bottas admitted his maiden Formula One victory on Sunday felt ‘a little bit surreal’ after he secured a tense and dramatic triumph for Mercedes in the Russian Grand Prix.
The 27-year-old Finn, recruited by Mercedes in January as a replacement for retired 2016 champion German Nico Rosberg, resisted intense pressure from Sebastian Vettel over the closing laps to claim his first win in his 81st Grand Prix and in his fourth outing with the champion team.
"I felt good, really good, but it's a little bit surreal this first win,” he said. “Hopefully, thought, it is the first of many! It was definitely one of my best races ever so it's a good feeling and I am happy."
Starting from third on the grid, Bottas made a storming start and delivered a powerful opening stint to stay clear of four-time pole-sitting champion Vettel’s Ferrari, the German admitting he could not live with the Finn’s pace at that time.
"Our start was probably a match with Valtteri," said Vettel. "Maybe he gained a bit of momentum. He had a massive tow.
“I defended the inside, but when we approached the braking zone, he was in front and able to shut the door on me.
“That is where he won the race. He then had an amazing first stint – and I couldn't stay with him.”
Bottas had secured 11 previous podium finishes without recording a win and conceded that he made an error in the closing stages when he locked up at Turn 13, a mistake that gave Vettel a chance to attack again.
“It was ok, really, but the main thing for me was the lapped cars, trying to get past those was not so easy!" said Bottas.
“With these new cars, we lose more down-force when we are two seconds, three seconds behind. So, it was tricky to get close and pass without losing time.
“I was not happy on a few occasions and I had one lock-up with 10-15 laps to go, which hurt the pace a bit, but other than that it was alright.
“And, yes, I did ask for radio silence from the pit-wall for me to get on it and get focused…”
Bottas is the fifth Finnish driver to win in Formula One and he believes that clearing that hurdle will now enable him to move on and do it again.
“I always knew I could get good results if everything goes right and I always trust in my ability," he explained.
“But it's nice to get confirmation that the results are possible. It's good to continue from here.”
Bottas made his debut with Williams in 2013 and spent four years with the British outfit before what he described as his ‘strange’ move to Mercedes.
“It took quite a while, more than 80 races for me, but it's definitely worth the wait," said Bottas. "This strange opportunity came to me in the winter to join the team -- and they made it possible. So I really want to thank them.”
Vettel came second ahead of Ferrari team-mate Finn Kimi Raikkonen who claimed his first podium finish since last year’s Austrian Grand Prix. Bottas’s Mercedes team-mate three-time champion Briton Lewis Hamilton struggled with over-heating problems and finished fourth.
Dutch teenager Max Verstappen finished fifth for Red Bull ahead of Mexican Sergio Perez and his Force India team-mate Frenchman Esteban Ocon, German Nico Hulkenberg of Renault and Brazilian Felipe Massa of Williams.
Spaniard Carlos Sainz finished 10th for Toro Rosso.
The result lifted Vettel clear at the top of the drivers championship with 86 points ahead of Hamilton on 73 with Bottas up to third with 63 points. Mercedes lead the constructors’ title race with 136 points to Ferrari on 135 after four rounds of this year’s championship.
For Australian Daniel Riccardo it was a day to forget as he was forced to retire after only six laps due to brake problems.
“The start felt pretty good initially, I seemed to get away quicker than the guys in front which backed me up and meant I lost momentum,” he explained.
“I was then a bit of a sitting duck on the outside line losing track position, but it looked like it would be a good battle from there.
“After the Safety Car I looked in my mirror to see where the Force India was and I noticed that my right rear brake was on fire, I reported it to the team and they told me to bring the car back to the pits slowly.
“Unfortunately the issue could not be fixed and I had to retire from the race.