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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Valtteri Bottas has rediscovered his joy of driving and it has had immediate success as he led Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in a 1-2 finish at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
Mercedes was a hot favorite to win in Melbourne after dominating every practice session and qualifying on the first weekend of the season. It was just the finishing order — and the gap of more than 20 seconds — on Sunday that was a surprise.
He also picked up the bonus point for the fastest lap, which has been reintroduced to F1 for the first time in six decades, to collect 26 championship points.
“It was definitely my best race ever. It felt so good,” Bottas said. “Truly enjoyed it. It wouldn’t be possible without my amazing car and the team we have.”
The quickest lap was a welcome bonus. “Definitely, it’s a new rule for this year. I had really strong pace, I wanted to go for that in the end.”
Bottas, whose best finish in six previous years in Australia was a third in 2017, was the faithful No. 2 at Mercedes last season, when a combination of mechanical problems and team instructions meant he didn’t win a GP in a season when Hamilton dominated and collected his fifth world drivers’ championship.
Hamilton, who won 11 of the 21 GP races in 2018, said it was a good weekend for Mercedes, which arrived in Australia expecting Ferrari to have the fastest cars.
“I have to be happy for everyone. Valtteri drove an incredible race today,” Hamilton said. “Really deserved it.”
Bottas consciously took time out over the winter to let his hair down and have some fun, hoping it would inspire a better return in F1 after he drifted to fifth place in the driver standings. He did a bit of rally driving, and said he relaxed over a few beers.
It must have been a good recipe.
The 29-year-old Finn held the lap record temporarily at the Albert Park circuit until there were just seconds remaining in qualifying, when Hamilton edged him for the mark and for No. 1 spot on the grid.
But Bottas made up for that when he surged to the lead at the first corner and essentially led for the remainder of the 58-lap race to capture his fourth GP victory and his first since Abu Dhabi in 2017.
Max Verstappen was closing in on Hamilton toward the end but the Red Bull driver had to settle for third.
Two-time defending champion Sebastien Vettel started from third on the grid but was overtaken on the outside by Verstappen on the 30th lap and finished fourth, one spot ahead of Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc. Kevin Magnussen was sixth for Haas, Nico Hulkenberg placed seventh for Renault and 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen was eighth in first drive for Alfa Romeo Racing since leaving Ferrari.
“I had to beat Seb to get onto the podium, which is not easy around here,” Verstappen said. “Happy to pull that move off — then challenging for second.
“To start the season on the podium, challenging the Mercedes in front of me, it’s a really good start to the season.”
Hamilton, who started from No. 1 on the grid for the sixth successive year and eighth-time overall in Melbourne, again had to settle for second. Only once in eight years as the fastest qualifier won the Australian GP.
Three drivers failed to finish, with local hope Daniel Ricciardo getting into trouble moments after leaving the grid when he strayed onto the grass as he tried to overtake going to the first corner and losing the front wing of his new Renault.
Robert Kubica was the last of 17 drivers who finished, but was content to get his first drive back in F1 since 2010 over and done with. He missed eight seasons because of a serious right hand injury sustained in a rallying crash but is back with Williams in 2019.
More AP F1 coverage: https://apnews.com/FormulaOne