BARCELONA • Lewis Hamilton has said he believes his team-mate, Valtteri Bottas, is a genuine contender for the Formula One title, after the Finn won the last race in Russia.
Hamilton, speaking before this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix, said that the form Bottas had shown came as no surprise, while insisting their Mercedes team had no intention of favouring either driver in their battle for the title with Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel.
"Of course, Bottas is a credible competitor," the three-time world champion said. "He was when he joined. Many came with preconceived ideas of how he was going to perform, and he has proven everybody wrong."
Bottas' victory was his first in F1 after he claimed his debut pole position at the previous race in Bahrain. The 27-year-old achieved it with a calm, mature drive that included maintaining his lead at the death while being chased down by the four-time world champion Vettel.
Vettel, with 86 points, leads Hamilton in the drivers' championship by 13 points, with Bottas 10 points further back.
"Fair play to him, he is going to remain a competitor through the rest of the year so the fight will go on," said Hamilton. "I have not had the chat about backing off because there is no need to."
Bottas has a one-year contract with Mercedes, with an option for next year. But there are already rumours that Vettel will join the Silver Arrows next year. The German, however, made light of media speculation on Thursday that he will leave the Italian outfit.
"I didn't know (about the rumours)," said the 29-year-old, who is out of contract at the end of the season. "Is it coming from Italy? Have you asked the Italians? They seem to know more than I do.
"I think the way (Ferrari) are set up right now, we find ourselves very happy and the focus is on this year despite the fact for next year there is nothing on paper."
Hamilton set the pace in opening practice for the Spanish Grand Prix yesterday, producing a best lap of 1min 21.521sec on the medium tyres. That was a mere 0.029sec quicker than Bottas, but nearly a second ahead of Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen in third place on a sunny morning.
THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS
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