Storming off the grid: Valtteri Borras leads from the start of the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on Sunday.Credit:AP
Finnish driver Valteri Bottas declared before the Australian Grand Prix got underway that he wanted to make season 2019 his best ever and challenge for a world title.
After a winless 2018 that looked like the height of optimism, especially as his team-mate would once again be five time world title winner Lewis Hamilton.
But whatever happens over the next eight months, the Mercedes driver knows that he could not have made a better possible start to the new campaign than he did on Sunday with a stunning lights to chequered flag victory at Albert Park.
The Finn was simply in a different class to the rest of the field as he posted an imperious triumph in a race he subsequently declared was ''my best ever''.
In winning by more than 20 seconds from his world champion team-mate Hamilton, Bottas made a clear statement not just to the Briton but his bosses at Mercedes that he too, on his day, could compete for the world title.
The softly spoken Finn rubbed it in by going flat out in the closing stages to post the fastest lap of the race, scoring an extra point in his first Australian Grand Prix success.
Valtteri Bottas.Credit:Joe Armao
Hamilton, who was on pole for the race for the sixth consecutive year, made it a 1-2 for the German team, but he had to withstand a determined challenge in the latter stages from young Dutchman Max Verstappen in the Red Bull to ensure second step on the podium.
For Verstappen the third place finish was his best in Australia.
The Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc were fourth and fifth, but they were some way adrift of the front three in what is a worrying start to the new season for a team which came into the weekend in Australia as race favourites following an impressive winter testing program.
''I don't know what to say. It was definitely my best race ever,'' said Bottas.
''I just felt so good and everything was under control – the car was so good today. I am so happy, I can't wait for the next race. It was about being at my best level, at one with the car. When you are on it it feels really easy, even if it's not.''
Hamilton might have been disappointed to have been beaten so far but he was full of praise for the team, who had turned the Mercedes around after it had been slower than the Ferraris in winter testing.
''It's a great weekend for the team. Valtteri drove an incredible race today and he deserved it. It's how the game goes.''
Bottas, who has had to play second fiddle to Hamilton for the past two years, looked likely to be second best again after qualifying saw him finish just behind the world champion in second place on the grid.
But the Finn gunned his engine off the line and got off to a brilliant start, edging past Hamilton down the straight as the field thundered away to the first turn.
That was where the race was won and lost, as none of Bottas' rivals could get anywhere near the man whose dominance on the day was simply staggering.
The race was a nightmare for Australia's local hero Daniel Ricciardo, making his debut for the Renault team. His race was virtually over in the first 100 metres as he bumped off a kerb just after the start and dislodged his front wing.
Up front 29-year-old Bottas would have been oblivious to Ricciardo's woes.
As the late afternoon sun dappled through the trees in the idyllic park setting the Finn must have felt as if he was out for a relaxing Sunday afternoon drive.
After one lap he was a second ahead of Hamilton and it quickly became apparent that his claim that he was now mentally and physically stronger and tougher and more focussed than ever was not just idle pre-race talk.
Valtteri Bottas.Credit:Joe Armao
His crew's decision to keep him out longer than Hamilton – he pitted seven laps after his team-mate – did not harm his cause either.
In winter testing the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc had been fastest, but the closest they got in this race was the third place that Vettel had secured on the grid after qualifying.
Afterwards Vettel shrugged and said: ''I guess we were just slow. For me it was just making sure I got to the end.''
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