At last, a closely contested F1 series; Bottas' win a surprise

By David Thomson on Sat, 6 May 2017

''Over time, he may graduate from a capable No 2 to challenging Hamilton on a regular basis, but this is not likely from the get-go''. Such was my prediction, on the eve of this year's Formula One world championship about new Mercedes Grand Prix racer Valtteri Bottas.

As regular F1 followers will know, Bottas took his maiden F1 victory at last weekend's Russian Grand Prix having _ for the second race in succession _ out-qualified Lewis Hamilton, his team-mate and defending world champion.

I am happy to eat early humble pie in respect of Bottas, not least because his pace, along with that of Ferrari duo Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, is rapidly turning this F1 season into the first genuinely engrossing one for several years.

Dissecting the opening four races of the championship, here's what we see: race wins to Vettel (two), Hamilton and Bottas, which makes it two each to Mercedes and Ferrari; fastest laps two: apiece to Raikkonen and Hamilton (so, again, two-all between Mercedes and Ferrari); pole positions to Hamilton (twice), Vettel and Bottas. In the constructors' championship, Mercedes is just one point clear of Ferrari, while in the drivers' title fight Vettel is an insignificant seven points clear of  Hamilton, with Bottas and Raikkonen next.

We've got seven grands prix between next weekend and the end of July, and I can't wait.

Variety also seems to be a feature of the two other motor racing championships I follow with interest.

The first five World Rally Championship rounds have produced four winners, with Thierry Neuville becoming the first driver to win twice this season when he snatched victory from Elfyn Evans by a whisker at last weekend's Argentinian round.

I am struggling to feel hugely enthusiastic about the WRC right now though, as our own Hayden Paddon continues to have a poor run: he's currently eighth in the points with a fifth placing his best result so far in 2017.

Paddon, who won in Argentina last year, is capable of much better, especially with team-mate Neuville showing just how quick the current Hyundai i20 WRC machine is. My fingers are crossed that everything clicks for him soon.

The New Zealand Rally Championship is also unpredictable right now. Matt Summerfield, who didn't even complete the first stage at Otago, won last weekend's Whangarei round, while Otago victor Dave Holder failed to finish. As a result, the ever-consistent Graham Featherstone finds himself leading the championship heading into next month's Canterbury Rally. Dylan Turner, who was very quick in his new Audi last weekend, and our own Rhys Gardner are also within easy striking distance of the championship lead.

It was great to see Gardner back up his Otago Rally podium finish with a solid fourth placing in Northland. The Balclutha-based Mazda driver is impressing many knowledgeable rallying folk right now.

Speaking of impressed, senior Drivesouth contributor Richard Bosselman isn't one to offer generous praise lightly. So, when he submitted his new-car preview of the latest Mazda CX-5 with a brief email note to me that read ''Hope this meets your requirements. A superb vehicle'', I sat up and took notice.

You can read his more formal evaluation of this obviously (highly) capable new SUV in this edition of Drivesouth.

David Thomson