Australian Grand Prix winner Valtteri Bottas went against a pre-race order from Mercedes boss Toto Wolff not to go for the new point on offer for the fastest lap of the race.
The first race of the Formula One season is notorious for offering up more questions than answers and Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix was no exception. We take a look at the main talking points from a surprising weekend.
Bottas put an exclamation point on his dominant Sunday performance on the penultimate lap by beating Max Verstappen’s previous best time, scoring a full 26 points. Ahead of the season, F1 agreed on a rule change allowing an extra point to anyone finishing inside the top 10.
The early indication from Melbourne is that the new rule will work in one of its desired aims of spicing up the closing stages of a race. Over the course of a season it means 21 are on offer, just four shy of the amount given to a race victory. Several drivers, including Bottas and teammate Lewis Hamilton, were heard asking their engineers over the radio about what they needed to get the time required.
It will encourage drivers and teams to weigh up the risk and reward of such a decision and will become a fascinating aspect to championship battles later in the season. Given that it was the first race, Wolff admitted he had favoured a more cautious approach when mapping out possible outcomes.
“Today in the morning meeting, when we talked about strategy, I forbid to go for fastest lap if we were running one, two or three,” Wolff said. “They ignored me. I think it was a plot between the engineers and the drivers! Because I think the engineers were keen and the drivers were keen!”
Despite his fears, Wolff was happy to see Bottas claim it without creating any late drama.
“I think I need to reconstruct the radio calls, how that happened. In the end I’m very happy, collecting that extra point is good, it’s entertaining, it’s a great new part of the spectacle. I believe it’s taking risks especially when you’re in for the big points, should you go for the fastest laps?
“But my reference points, being in control of a car is my own driving and not the level of the F1 drivers. I didn’t like it so much.”
Bottas wanted to know whether he had enough of a gap to teammate Lewis Hamilton to pit for fresh tyres in the closing laps, something the team decided against despite his healthy advantage. That appears likely to be the easiest way to gain a fastest lap at that stage of the race, although it puts a driver’s lead over another car at the mercy of a slow or botched pit stop or a mistake as the new tyres get up to temperature early on.
Ferrari opted against taking that risk with new signing Charles Leclerc, who had a significant advantage over sixth-placed Kevin Magnussen in the closing laps. In the end the team was content to leave him out after telling him to hold station behind teammate Sebastian Vettel.
Explaining his mindset late on, Bottas said: “Obviously getting the big amount of points from the result itself is a much, much bigger priority. And the second priority, the fastest lap. Once the gap to behind was decent, there was enough margin to speak about that, and make a plan for that.
“I asked about a possible pit stop, but it’s something that we actually spoke about before the race, that it’s the first race of the season, we don’t want to do silly mistakes, we want to be slightly on the conservative side with some preparations — obviously still racing hard and being the best we can, but we need to make sure we do get the best points.
“That’s why we didn’t stop in the end, because stopping again is always one more risk, whether at the same time there’s a safety car, or an issue with the pit stop. I just decided in the last few laps, even though I was in traffic, trying to find a bit of a gap. I was pulling back, with some cars behind, went to some other engine modes, and went for a quick lap. I’m glad I got it, so it’s obviously one point more.”