Bottas and Mercedes dominate Australian opener

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MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Valtteri Bottas capitalized on a late pitstop to upset his world champion team mate Lewis Hamilton and clinch the season-opening Australian Grand Prix for Mercedes on Sunday with the “best race” of his life.

Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas holds the winners trophy as Lewis Hamilton looks on after Bottas won the Formula One F1 Australian Grand Prix at the Albert Park Grand Prix Circuit in Melbourne, Australia, March 17, 2019. AAP/Julian Smith/via REUTERS

Starting second behind pole-sitter Hamilton, Bottas got the jump on the Briton during a typically messy start at Albert Park and ended up cruising to his fourth win by some 20.80 seconds after delaying a tyre-change.

Runner-up Hamilton, who switched to the medium compound tyres seven laps earlier than Bottas, had to battle to hold off third-placed Max Verstappen and was fortunate the Red Bull driver took a late skid in the grass to lose vital seconds.

Bottas claimed his first race win since Abu Dhabi in 2017 and added icing to the cake by securing a bonus point for the fastest lap at the lakeside circuit in one minute 25.580 seconds.

“I don’t know what just happened. The start was really good, it was definitely my best race ever,” said the overwhelmed Finn.

“I just felt so good and everything was under control. The car was so good today so truly enjoyable, I need to enjoy today.

“I’m just so happy and can’t wait for the next race.”

Hamilton complained mid-race on the team radio about his early pitstop and said he was worried his tyres would not last.

But he was magnanimous about the result and his team will have been thrilled that their raw pace was enough to blitz the chasing pack.

“It was a good weekend for the team,” said Hamilton.

“Valtteri drove an incredible race today so he deserved it.

“I’ve just got work on my starts more.”

For Ferrari, however, it was a sobering day as fourth-placed Vettel and fifth-placed new boy Charles Leclerc were reduced to fighting each other for a minor position.

The Scuderia had posted the fastest times during winter testing — just pipping Mercedes — but both cars finished nearly a minute behind Bottas.

Four-times champion Vettel held the podium spot for most of the race but ended up easily picked off by Verstappen as Red Bull celebrated a positive debut with Honda engines.

“I had to overtake Seb to get onto the podium which is not easy here but I was happy to pull that move off,” said the Dutchman, who secured Honda a first podium in the V6 turbo hybrid era.

In the midfield battle, Kevin Magnussen was sixth for Haas ahead of Renault’s seventh-placed Nico Hulkenberg.

Former world champion Kimi Raikkonen was eighth in his debut for Alfa Romeo, the team formerly known as Sauber, while ninth-placed Lance Stroll and 10th-placed Daniil Kvyat grabbed the remaining points for Racing Point F1 and Toro Rosso respectively.

It was a terrible Renault debut for home hope Daniel Ricciardo as he rolled wide into the grass straight out of the grid and destroyed his front wing over a bump.

He was forced to pit immediately to replace it and ended up back in the garage midway through the race, his third retirement in his home race.

McLaren driver Carlos Sainz also retired after easing into pit lane on the 11th lap with his car on fire.

Haas, who lost both cars due to botched tyre changes in last year’s race, showed they were not free of their pit-stop gremlins, as a poor stop caused Romain Grosjean to lose two places.

The Frenchman was later forced to retire with a reliability problem.

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In his first Formula One race in more than eight years, Williams driver Robert Kubica was last of the 17 cars that finished, one behind rookie team mate George Russell.

McLaren’s Lando Norris was the best of the F1 debutants, finishing 12th.

Prior to the start, drivers and officials stood for a minute’s silence at the grid in tribute to the late F1 racing director Charlie Whiting and in remembrance of victims of a mass shooting at two mosques in New Zealand on Friday.

Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Nick Mulvenney/Amlan Chakraborty