What a start to the 2018 season it's been.
Four races have produced three different winners from three different teams, and each of those four grands prix could have gone another way. The championship is wide-open, and we've already got a feisty intra-team rivalry brewing at Red Bull between two of the most talented drivers on the grid. The only downside to unpredictable racing is that someone usually loses out, and on Sunday it was Valtteri Bottas.
Had it not been for a piece of debris on the pit straight three laps from the chequered flag, Bottas would be leading the championship with 65 points, ahead of Sebastian Vettel on 64 and Lewis Hamilton on 63. Given the performances that those three drivers have put in over the three most recent races, that would seem like a fair indication of form, albeit with Vettel still suffering for Max Verstappen's mistake in China. Instead, Bottas' puncture has cut him 30 points adrift of his teammate, who is also the championship leader, and leaves him in fourth place overall. Unpredictable racing is great to watch, but it is also devastatingly cruel.
"Heartbroken" was the word Bottas used to sum up his feelings after the race. "It just hurts a lot inside," he said.
"I think this shows racing is never a win until you see the chequered flag. That's how it goes, and this time I got very unlucky in the end. Apparently I hit some debris, but I have no idea where or when. It's just unlucky.
"Some days are good; some days are bad. Some days are very bad."
Why Bottas deserved the victory
For all the fireworks lit by the two Red Bulls colliding at Turn 1 on Lap 39, it would have been fascinating -- although perhaps less thrilling -- to see the race unfold without the final safety car. But to fully comprehend Bottas' performance and the heartache that followed, it's worth mapping out what would have happened if the Red Bulls had given each other enough racing room.
Bottas, who had started third but was on a long first stint on the super-soft tyres, was positioning himself to overcut teammate Hamilton and attack Vettel using ultra-soft tyres in the closing stages. Regardless of the incident at Turn 1 on Lap 39, Bottas would have pitted that lap to allow himself 12 laps to attack Vettel ahead of the chequered flag. A good in lap and a clean pit stop would have delivered him back into the fray just ahead of Hamilton, who was struggling for performance on a soft tyre too stiff for the cooling track conditions, and seven seconds behind Vettel, who would then be leading on a nine-lap-old set of softs.
Earlier in the race, Ferrari and Vettel had clearly had the edge over the Mercedes drivers and appeared to be holding pace in reserve in the opening stint. But Bottas' pace toward the end of the first stint on a 40-lap-old set of super-softs had taken the Azerbaijan Grand Prix by the scruff of the neck and turned it into a nip-and-tuck battle. Without the second safety car, Bottas new ultra-soft tyres would have had a performance advantage in the region of 0.8s-0.9s per lap over Vettel's aging softs and a total of 12 laps to close a seven-second deficit to the Ferrari.
With that kind of performance advantage, he should have had the pace to at least attempt an overtaking manoeuvre for the lead, and after being criticised for not trying a move on Vettel in similar circumstances in Bahrain, you can bet he would have gone for it. As it turned out, the Red Bull collision and the resulting safety car delivered him the lead without all that effort, but all of a sudden he faced a very different challenge.
Vettel and Hamilton had both used the safety car to take on new sets of ultra-soft tyres of their own, creating a four-lap sprint race to the flag once the Red Bull debris and subsequent Romain Grosjean wreck had been cleared up. At the restart, Bottas appeared to get the jump on Vettel, but a combination of a slipstream and Ferrari power saw Vettel get close enough to attempt an overtaking move for the lead going into Turn 1.
"It was very interesting because I thought at the restart, Valtteri did very well to pull out again," Mercedes boss Toto Wolff explained, "but then through the last kink, the Ferrari came back hugely, and we saw it on the data that that is where the engine seems to work best -- around 200 kph. He caught up and just dived for the inside [at Turn 1]. It was just clever [for Valtteri] to open the door when he saw him locking his wheels. So I think, apart from Valtteri, everybody made mistakes today."
With Vettel out of the picture, Bottas looked set to lead a Mercedes 1-2 to the finish. As in China two weeks earlier, the Finn had been like the faster of the two Mercedes drivers in the race and, after missing out on a victory because of a late safety car in Shanghai, it appeared as though Bottas was finally going step up to the top step of the podium after two second-place finishes at the previous two rounds.
It's not yet clear where the debris that ruined Bottas' race came from, but from his position in the cockpit, the Mercedes driver didn't even see it. What appeared to be a chunk of metal was still lying on the racetrack following a lengthy safety car period, and team boss Wolff was furious about it after the race.
"One word on the debris," Wolff said during his session with written media on Sunday evening, "these things shouldn't be on track. We had six laps behind the safety car, there shouldn't be a piece of debris the size of a fist left out there."
The only silver lining for Mercedes was that Hamilton was in position to inherit the win rather than a Ferrari. The reigning champion had seemingly taken himself out of contention for the victory on Lap 22, when a double front lock-up trashed his set of super-softs 18 laps before the end of their potential life cycle. He later explained that a 25 kph headwind turned into a 15 kph tailwind as he got on the brakes, but regardless of the tricky conditions, the mistake had ruined his chances of challenging Vettel for the win without the final safety car.
Wolff suggested the surprise victory that followed made up for the win Hamilton missed out on due to an unfortunately-timed safety car in Australia, but on Sunday evening, the man himself could not shake the feeling that Bottas should have won.
"It doesn't feel like justice [for Australia], and it doesn't feel like a relief, either," Hamilton said. "I would say it was quite a humbling feeling. There were points in the race that I really felt like I had a chance to win, then I had the lock up and I just thought that had taken me out of the race and I was struggling with the tyres.
"You can never get a win back. You never get a day back in your life, do you? And that's the same, you never get a win back. This was a lottery race, and whether or not you use 'gifted' as the word, I don't know if I would use that, but it was a fortunate race. I was on the podium believing that Valtteri should be standing here because he had earned it. It's definitely a different feeling when you feel someone else had earned it that day.
"The reason I was delayed on the podium was because I'd come back here [to Mercedes hospitality] to see him. He'd put on a great race, battling at times, and I think he just drove especially well, as he did in the last race. I think, more so than ever, he has earned his place here, and the team should be really happy with him. I know how difficult it is when you have days like that, where you think you are going to win and it gets taken away from you, because I've had that before. Just out of respect, I thought I would try and lift him up a little bit."
But all the raw emotion that was floating around in the Mercedes hospitality unit after the race counts for nothing in the black-and-white reality of the driver standings. Bottas' puncture cost him a net 33 points to Hamilton, and for a driver who is facing stiff competition for his Mercedes seat beyond the end of the season, that will be awfully hard to swallow. The only positive was that his dry sense of humour was still present as he faced the media after the race. When asked for the Finnish way to get over such a big disappointment, Bottas responded: "Probably get hammered -- yeah, that's maybe the best. And then move on."
If he can move on and continue in his rich vein of form when F1 resumes in Barcelona next month, Bottas might see justice restored with a victory at the Circuit de Catalunya. But there's also a feeling in the paddock that Hamilton's surprise Baku victory might just be enough to kick-start the four-time world champion's season, and if that happens, Bottas may be left ruing that piece of debris for the rest of his career.