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Bottas and Honda are back, but Ferrari go missing

By Reuters - Mar 19,2019 - Last updated at Mar 19,2019

Mercedes’ Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas (centre) attends a press conference with second-placed Mercedes’ British driver Lewis Hamilton (left) and third-placed Red Bull Racing’s Dutch driver Max Verstappen after the Formula One Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on Sunday (AFP photo by Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)

LONDON — A damaged car accounted for some of Lewis Hamilton’s lack of relative pace in Formula One’s Australian season-opener, but the Briton can have no doubt that his winning Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas is a man on a mission.

The Finn, mentally battered after a winless 2018 season that left him dismissed as no more than a “wingman” for five-times champion Hamilton, returned meaner and more determined for Melbourne.

Telling his critics where to go in blunt language over the team radio after taking the chequered flag 20.8 seconds clear of Hamilton on Sunday, Bottas showed he was ready to fight for his place at Mercedes and become a true contender.

The Finn will need plenty more of that inner steel against a teammate whose race was decided by a slow getaway from pole position before his car lost a chunk of its floor, compromising performance.

“It was really about bringing the car home in one piece and making sure we had the one-two. Pretty straightforward to be honest,” said Hamilton.

The Briton has won four of the last five championships, beaten only by then-teammate Nico Rosberg in 2016 when Mercedes were dominant, and also started last season with a second place in Melbourne. 

He will be losing no sleep after a race that is always something of an outlier.

“I’ve been here a long, long time and I’ve never known after the first race,” he said when asked how he read the situation.

“You usually take from the first four races a bit of an idea of where we all stand. It could be like this for four races or it could be scattered. I don’t have a crystal ball so I can’t tell you but I can assure you we’ll be pushing onwards and upwards from here.”

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel won last year’s opener but the Italian team’s lack of pace, after arriving as favourites following a strong showing in pre-season testing, provided a major talking point.

That could prove only a temporary blip, however, with the next race in Bahrain more of an indicator of the Italian team’s true position. 

Honda showed they have got their act together by powering new partners Red Bull to third place with Max Verstappen overtaking Vettel for a place on the podium.

That was the first top-three finish for a Honda-powered car since 2008 and Hamilton welcomed that.

“I remember growing up watching Ayrton [Senna] drive with the [McLaren] Honda and they were a formidable force back then and it’s great to seem them back up there,” he told reporters.

“The Red Bulls are there with us and I think they’re going to have a really, really great battle between the three of us,” he added.

“With Ferrari something’s not been right this weekend but I’m pretty sure that car is still good. I think it’s going to be a really interesting season.”

Further back down the grid, the midfield battle looked intense as predicted with Haas the best of the rest and then four drivers from four different teams filling the positions from seventh to 10th.

There was also no surprise from Williams, confirmed as the slowest team on the grid and with a chasm between them and the rest.

Meanwhile, Bottas won the season-opener with the fastest lap and in the process achieved a Formula One first, while also ignoring team instructions to play safe.

The Finn was the first driver since the 1950s to win a point for the fastest lap, under a new rule introduced this year, and also the only one ever to score more than 25 points in a race on more than one occasion.

The only other race in which drivers have been able to score more than the maximum allocated for a victory was the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, when double points were handed out for the first and only time.

Bottas finished third in that race at Yas Marina for Williams, behind winner Hamilton and now-retired Brazilian Felipe Massa, and banked 30 points. On Sunday he scored 26.

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