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|British Grand Prix on the BBC|
|Dates: 14-16 July Venue: Silverstone|
|Coverage: Practice and qualifying on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra (online only), and race on BBC Radio 5 live. Live text commentary, leaderboard and imagery on BBC Sport website and app.|
Is there an interloper in the Formula 1 title fight?
The focus at this weekend’s British Grand Prix is all on Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, and the latest twist in their fascinating battle – as indeed it has been for much of the season.
It’s what F1 was hoping for – two world champions in different teams slugging it out, the races decided by small details, uncertainty at every grand prix.
But this season might not be as simple as that. Valtteri Bottas’ victory in Austria on Sunday put him just 15 points behind his Mercedes team-mate, who is 20 behind Vettel, and suddenly all the talk in the paddock was about the quiet Finn as a title contender.
On paper, he genuinely is.
Bottas has won two races, while Hamilton and Vettel both have three victories. Hamilton has five pole positions to Bottas’ two, but the Finn’s average qualifying position is 2.3 and Hamilton’s 3.1. And on average qualifying lap time, there is nothing to choose between them – Bottas is actually ahead of the man regarded as the fastest driver in the world by 0.026secs after nine races.
On the weekends on which Mercedes struggled with tyres – Russia and Monaco – Bottas delivered more effectively than Hamilton.
Bottas has even had a retirement – with an engine failure in Spain – which cost him third place, or 15 points. Without that, he and Hamilton would be level.
No wonder a somewhat downcast Hamilton said after the race in Austria: “When you look a the results, he has had a DNF as well so he has generally had a better season so far. But there was never a point that he wasn’t in the fight.”
What Bottas has achieved with Mercedes this year is highly impressive in any circumstances, especially as the 27-year-old only joined Mercedes in January after Nico Rosberg’s retirement as world champion. And one imagines it will be enough to secure him a new contract at the end of the season.
As for whether he is a realistic title contender, though, there is an opposing argument.
First of all, Hamilton has been unlucky.
Had his head restraint not come loose during the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, he would have won that race, Bottas would have been third not second and Vettel fifth not fourth.
And had Hamilton’s gearbox not needed to be changed for Austria, he would have finished at least third, not fourth.
All of which would have made the current gap to Bottas 36, and the two main contenders dead level.
Then there’s the underlying performance of the two Mercedes drivers.
Yes, there is nothing to choose between them in qualifying – and Hamilton has had three below-par Saturday afternoons in Russia, Monaco and Austria.
But that has not generally been the case in races.
Only in one race – Bottas’ superb victory in Russia – has he been unquestionably faster than Hamilton. In Monaco, it was impossible to tell, as Hamilton spent the race in traffic after qualifying 14th.
In all the others, Hamilton has been demonstrably faster. Even in Austria, which Bottas won impressively, Hamilton was 14.4 seconds down on his team-mate by the time he had cleared the Force India of Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean’s Haas but only 7.4secs behind at the finish.
At the same time, while Bottas has scored more points than either Hamilton or Vettel in the last four races, he has beaten Vettel only twice on merit – in his two victories. The other two times – Canada and Azerbaijan – came after Vettel hit trouble when he was ahead. If that ratio continues, Bottas simply can’t overhaul Vettel in the championship.
Hamilton has beaten Vettel only three times – but was nip and tuck with him for the win in Australia and Bahrain, and would have done in Baku were it not for the head rest issue. In other words, Hamilton has been much more of a consistent threat to the German on raw race pace.
Perhaps this was what Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff had in mind when he said after Austria: “For Lewis, it was actually the best outcome today that Valtteri wins the race rather than Sebastian. We are not even half time and we start counting points.
“In my opinion, Lewis had all the bad luck that you can have. We have let him down with the head rest and the gearbox and now it is about time to fight back and hopefully that is going to happen at Silverstone.”
Bottas himself says he has never had any doubt that he can be a title contender this year.
“For me, since the day I signed with Mercedes, what else can you put as a target?” he says. “It has always been the target. But I don’t want to shout about it too much. It is still early days in the championship and more than 50% to go so a massive amount of points to get and with this team I am developing so much every single race.
“It is still a long year ahead and for sure we will be in the championship fight.
“I don’t want to think about it too much, because it doesn’t help anything to start thinking about it because the fact is to win the title you need to make the most out of every race weekend.
“By making a thing about winning titles it doesn’t change anything, you need to go race by race, session by session, lap by lap. But I know in theory with the points and everything we will be in the fight and that is good to know.”
It all adds up to a potentially interesting – for which read difficult – situation for Mercedes.
Vettel’s team-mate Kimi Raikkonen is a de facto number two; may even be a contractual one, if the rumours are to be believed. Raikkonen is already 88 points behind Vettel and will act as a rear-gunner for him for the rest of the season, even if Ferrari are not ready to admit it yet. They used him strategically in that way in Austria only last weekend.
But Mercedes say they are not yet ready to adopt that policy, and are for now letting the drivers race freely. Wolff says he will handle the situation “like we have handled it in the past, with the difference that dynamics between the drivers are completely different”.
That is a reference to the sometimes poisonous atmosphere between Hamilton and Rosberg over the previous three seasons, when the German would use political games behind the scenes to try to destabilise his team-mate – sometimes successfully.
There seems little chance of that happening with Bottas, who is a straightforward, apolitical character. Trying to mess with a rival’s head appears not to be something that would even occur to him – he simply goes about his business in his own quiet way.
Of course, having an ultra-stable, impervious team-mate can bring its own issues for the other driver in a team, but at least Hamilton knows it will almost certainly stay cordial and uncomplicated internally at Mercedes.
Eventually, if the championship becomes a mathematical impossibility for Bottas – or close to it – he will be asked to support Hamilton and will probably do it uncomplainingly, just as he did when letting him by in Bahrain this year.
Until then, if Hamilton wants to get his title challenge back on track and ensure it really does become a two-horse fight with Vettel, the onus is on him to do it himself.
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