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MAY 2, 2017

Two against one - is it 2007 all over again?


Sebastian Vettel, Spanish GP 2017
© The Cahier Archive

Kimi Raikkonen had his best performance of the season last weekend in Russia, scoring his first podium finish of 2017, closing on Valtteri Bottas and Sebastian Vettel in the second part of the Sochi race, after just missing out on his first pole position to his team mate. But that didn't stop Ferrari from using the veteran Finn as help for Vettel's battle for victory, giving yet another hint Raikkonen is seen very much as the Number Two driver at Maranello.

Ferrari was as surprised as everyone else by Bottas' speed in the first stint of the Russian Grand Prix, as he quickly pulled away from Vettel while the front-runners were all on Ultra Soft tyres, with Raikkonen also dropping back from his team mate, but keeping way clear of a subdued Lewis Hamilton. After 25 laps, as the leader started to hit traffic, Bottas led Vettel by 3,2s, with Raikkonen 7,7s behind his team mate but 4,5s ahead of Hamilton.

The younger Finn was the first to make a move, pitting on lap 27 for Super Softs and it was immediately clear he wasn't really making gains in spite of running new tyres - as the performance gap between Pirelli's Soft and Ultra Soft was one second per lap when new, in a track where degradation was not an issue.

It was at this moment Ferrari took a decision that ended up not costing any position to Raikkonen, as Hamilton's pace was even worse on Super Softs than it had been on Ultra Softs, but aimed at helping Vettel finally get the better of Bottas. With no chance to try and undercut the Mercedes driver, as the gap had been too big, Ferrari opted to extend Vettel's first run to 34 laps - on Ultra Soft tyres, mind you - to give him much fresher rubber in the final stages of the race and a fighting chance of overtaking Bottas.

To make sure the young Finn would use up his set of Super Soft tyres hard and eventually run into degradation issues, Ferrari pitted Raikkonen on lap 29 and the instructions were clear: go for it now! Happy at being allowed to race without any need to save tyres or fuel, the veteran Finn emerged from the pits 10s behind his team mate, but while the Mercedes driver was managing his tyres, Rakkonen was on a mission: in just four laps the gap went down to 6,8s, but now he was going so far there was the risk of Vettel returning from his pit stop behind the second Ferrari as the German's pace had finally started to drop. That's why, after a few hesitations, Ferrari brought Vettel in on lap 34, emerging from the pits less than 3s ahead of his team mate to chase Bottas to the line and provide us all with an exciting finish - something it feels odd to write in a race with zero overtaking after the first lap‘‚  

Interestingly, shortly after Saturday's qualifying session, Raikkonen had been asked if he was prepared to let Vettel by in the race, should the team order him to do so. His answer was short, as usual, as he explained, "we know what to do, we race for Ferrari and that's it." The implication was simple: I'm here to do a job for the team and that's what I'm going to do.

In previous races Raikkonen was very vocal on the radio, questioning the strategies he was forced to execute, as Ferrari was trying to use him as help for Vettel in his battles against Hamilton. In Russia the only rant came when the Finn was confused to learn Bottas was in front of him after the pit stops, as he thought Hamilton had been the leading Mercedes since the start of the race. There was no questioning the tactics, no rants, nothing - more like acceptance of his role in the team after a poor start of the season.

With Bottas winning and cutting to ten points the gap for Hamilton in the championship, Mercedes may end up with a problem they really didn't seem to expect this year: having two drivers in the fight for the title, against the single Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel. In a way, one can say Bottas' victory in Russia helped Hamilton, for he took away seven precious points from Vettel, making his team mate's loss a smaller one than it could have been, but now the Finn will be an even stronger driver, after his first Grand Prix victory and is well capable of winning some more races, starting in Barcelona, where he always performed extremely well. And that will put Mercedes in a position similar to the one McLaren endured in the second half of 2007, when Hamilton and Alonso were battling Raikkonen for the title and ended up losing it in spite of having a faster car.

Of course a lot of factors contributed to that debacle, from Alonso falling out with the team to the Max Mosley's vendetta against Ron Dennis, hitting McLaren to target its main man, but Alonso took points away from Hamilton and vice-versa, while at Ferrari it was Felipe Massa's turn to play second fiddle, with all the points going to Raikkonen. That's the scenario Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda will want to avoid at all costs this year, but unless they make some very harsh and unpopular decisions very early this season, Sebastian Vettel seems to be in a very strong position to claim his fifth World Championship crown.