Hamilton has another title rival to conquer after Bottas' stunning win at Austrian GP

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Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton.

There have been times this season when Valtteri Bottas has seemed like an afterthought both within the four walls of Mercedes and in the broader spectrum of this season’s world championship.

But the reality is that after just nine races he is a mere 15 points behind Lewis Hamilton, supposedly the quickest driver on the grid.

In addition, following a dominant drive to victory at the Austrian Grand Prix, he is also the grateful recipient of two chequered flags in contrast to the three wins apiece for Sebastian Vettel and teammate Hamilton.

That Bottas has done so is no mean feat. Hamilton has made drivers of the calibre of Fernando Alonso look distinctly average in the same machinery and, it’s worth noting in the context of that particularly analogy, that Alonso and Hamilton were both coming fresh to McLaren at the same time.

What Bottas has done deserves to be much less under the radar then it is currently.

Hamilton already had four seasons under his belt at Mercedes before the Finn’s arrival as a replacement for Nico Rosberg during the winter, so Bottas was on the back foot from the outset.

He was solid without being spectacular in his opening races with two podiums and a sixth place before his maiden victory at the Russian Grand Prix, a circuit where he has always shone for Mercedes.

But even more impressive have been his last three races: two second places and a win warranting him 61 points. In contrast, in that trio of grands prix Vettel boasts a points tally of 40 while Hamilton has accrued 47 points.

On paper, Bottas is the current form man on the track, albeit in slightly less headline-grabbing circumstances than his two realistic rivals for the title.

What the 27-year-old must surely have warranted is a contract for next season, although on arrival at the Red Bull Ring, team boss Toto Wolff reiterated the fact his was a one-year deal with all other options on the table for 2018, with suggestions Fernando Alonso might even make the switch alongside Hamilton.

Sticking with Bottas makes total sense. He’s quick, reliable and has not rocked the boat at Mercedes – i.e. there’s not been a repeat of the histrionics that emanated from either side of the garage week in, week out in the days where Rosberg and Hamilton were inter-team sparring partners.

And Bottas also poses a realistic prospect of being world champion come the season’s end, unlike Vettel’s teammate in Kimi Raikkonen.

But therein lies a potential problem for the team as it approaches the halfway point in the season at the British Grand Prix.

Ferrari effectively know they can put all their eggs in one basket for Vettel in the title race. Team boss Maurizio Arrivabene knows it, Vettel and Raikkonen know it, and as such the team is going all out for their No1 to be victorious.

With Hamilton there might be the sense that he is first choice at Mercedes – unsurprising bearing in mind he has provided the team with two world championship titles and is an established member of the team.

I’d suggested earlier in the season that Mercedes would do well to turn their attentions to Hamilton solely in the title race, yet Bottas has proved me totally wrong, and Mercedes were right in their insistence that it was too early in the season to make such a call.

He might not be the title favourite but his second victory – this time in Austria – cements his place in the conversation.

Is that to the detriment of Hamilton’s championship charge? Yes and no.

For most drivers, being outdone by your teammate, denied points in the championship race and have part of your team’s attention taken away would be a negative.

But Hamilton has repeatedly said that the more challengers in the title race the better, within his team included, a sentiment that seems genuine. In Bottas, he truly has one now.

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Lewis Hamilton praises Mercedes for practice speed at Austrian GP

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Lewis Hamilton.

Lewis Hamilton praised his Mercedes team and the speed of his updated car Friday after dominating both practice sessions for the Austrian Grand Prix with record-breaking times.

The three-time world champion, who is 14 points behind championship leader Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari in the title race, topped both sessions with aplomb.

He was nearly two-tenths clear of Vettel in the afternoon on a day of near-perfect preparations at the Red Bull Ring circuit.

“It’s been a really good Friday with no major headaches to complain about so far,” said three-time world champion Hamilton. “We had to swap out a spark plug during FP2, but the guys did a great job to turn the car around — and we still managed to complete our programme.

“Most importantly, the car feels fantastically fast here. There’s already a nice balance and it feels good out on track.

“This car is so quick in comparison to what we raced here last year. It’s tricky, but a proper thrill to hook up a lap.

“The team is in good spirits and we’re all up for another exciting fight with the Ferraris this weekend.”

His Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas was third-fastest in both sessions after spins on the picturesque track in the Styrian Alps.

“It was great to see that the upgrades the team worked so hard to deliver for this weekend have worked straight out of the box,” he said.

“Aerodynamically, we’ve made another step forward from Baku, which is encouraging. This track punishes you if you make a mistake.

“I tested those limits, but that’s something I can learn from and build upon for the rest of the weekend. The balance of the car feels good and we’ll fine tune the set-up tonight for qualifying.”

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Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel escapes further punishment over F1 Baku road rage

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Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel’s collision with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton during the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was deliberate but he will face no further sanction, Formula One’s governing body the FIA ruled on Monday.

Germany’s Vettel had driven his Ferrari into the back of Hamilton’s Mercedes on lap 19 of the tempestuous race in Baku last month bumping the Briton on the wheel at high speed.

The FIA held a meeting with Vettel and his Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene at its headquarters in Paris on Monday.

As the four-time world champion admitted full responsibility for the incident and offered a full apology the FIA decided no further sanction would be necessary.

“Top level sport is an intense environment in which tempers can flare,” FIA president Jean Todt said.

“However, it is the role of top sportsmen to deal with the pressure calmly.”

Vettel incurred a 10-second penalty and three points on his licence, increasing his total to nine.

He will have to stay out of trouble in Austria or face a possible one-race ban for reaching 12 penalty points inside a 12-month period.

“Sebastian Vettel extended his sincere apologies to the FIA and the wider motor sport family,” the FIA statement continued.

“He additionally committed to devote personal time over the next 12 months to educational activities across a variety of FIA championships and events, including in the FIA Formula 2 Championship, the FIA Formula 3 European Championship, at an FIA Formula 4 Championship to be defined and at the FIA stewards’ seminar.”

The chaotic race at Baku was won by Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull as Vettel finished fourth and Hamilton fifth after the Englishman was forced to make an extra pit-stop from a commanding leading position to repair a loose headrest.

Championship leader Vettel, who turned 30 on Monday, will now start this week’s Austrian Grand Prix with his 14-point margin over title rival Hamilton intact.

In the world championship standings Vettel leads Hamilton by 14 points with 12 races still remaining.

Provided by AFP

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