Bottas enters F1 title fight after acing Austria

Valtteri Bottas shakes Sebastian Vettel's hand on the Austrian Grand Prix podium.

“It was like the perfect weekend,” Mercedes’s Valtteri Bottas said after the Austrian Grand Prix. “Pole position and a win.”

In a season hitherto dominated by the titanic duel between teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, Bottas’s lights-to-flag victory in the Styrian mountains was much needed elixir for his maiden campaign in championship-winning car.

In a sedate grand prix Bottas’s performance featured everything. He was comfortably faster than Hamilton in qualifying, he executed a launch so precise that the stewards briefly investigated him for jumping the start and he absorbed relentless pressure from a resurgent Vettel in the final stint of the race while nursing blistered tyres.

It was a complete performance by the Finn, who has been improving incrementally since debuting for reigning champion Mercedes this season, and though few doubted he was capable of such comprehensive weekends on occasion, his consistency over the first nine rounds has forced a re-evaluation of his position in the 2017 title race.

Formerly considered alongside Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen, his once-great compatriot who has long lost his lustre, Bottas is now just 15 points behind Hamilton and 35 points behind leader Vettel in the championship standings.

With a smaller gap to teammate Hamilton than Hamilton’s gap to Vettel, Bottas has forced himself into the 2017 championship equation.

“We’re not even at the halfway of the year, so I definitely believe and the team believes,” he said. “With this team developing so much every single race, I feel like I’m really getting better all the time.

“Since the day I signed with Mercedes what else can you put as a target? It has always been the target, but I don’t want to shout about it too much.”

In second place on the podium stood Sebastian Vettel, who was able to extend his championship lead over the field to 20 points on a day Lewis Hamilton finished fourth after starting eighth with a gearbox change penalty.

The pair struggled all weekend to put their controversial on-track spat at the previous round in Baku behind them — Vettel was investigated by the FIA for whacking into the side of Hamilton in Azerbaijan, and an at times tense press conference in Austria illustrated the damage done to their relationship.

But perhaps most intriguing of the results was Daniel Ricciardo’s third-place finish, which demonstrated Red Bull Racing’s RB13 has recovered from its difficult start to the season to be thereabouts on pace relative to Ferrari and Mercedes.

“I think that’s probably the biggest satisfaction with today,” the Australian said at the Red Bull-owned circuit that has never suited any of Red Bull’s cars. “I’d say the biggest happiness for today is that we had raw pace.

“The car is certainly getting there, and it’s all I can ask for.”

It bodes well for this weekend’s British Grand Prix on 16 July. The famous Silverstone circuit has long suited Red Bull Racing’s design philosophy, with the car almost untouchable in Britain at the height of the team’s powers at the turn of the decade.

The circuit is expected to bring out the best of 2017’s new regulations, with more of the circuit that ever being close to flat-out, including the daunting Maggotts-Becketts sequence of corners.

“That’s already enough to get me excited!” Ricciardo said, foreshadowing his excitement. “I’ll try not to say something too dirty or disgusting here — but it’ll be romantic!”

It may have taken the 2017 season time to deliver, but with a three-driver title fight on the cards and three teams in contention for victory, in the European summer the Formula One season is beginning to reach full bloom.

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