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Hamilton: F1 title contender Bottas keeping me on my toes

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Lewis Hamilton is confident that Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas is in contention for this year’s Formula 1 drivers’ championship, saying the Finn is keeping him on his toes after taking his maiden pole position in Bahrain.

Bottas joined Mercedes for 2017 after world champion Nico Rosberg’s retirement, scoring a podium on debut for the German marque in Australia.

Bouncing back from a difficult race in China last weekend, Bottas surged to his maiden F1 pole on Saturday in qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix, edging out Hamilton by two-hundredths of a second.

Hamilton was full of praise for Bottas, saying he was surprised by his teammate’s qualifying laps.

“He’s been working so hard and gelled so well with the team. Today he was just quicker, he did the better job, so hat off to him,” Hamilton said.

“The first lap felt great and I looked up and the time was so close, and I thought ‘wow, that’s a good lap, he did a great job!’

“A great battle, that’s how close qualifying should always be. It forces us all to be on the limit. I’m generally happy with the job I did and it’s great for the team to be one-two.”

Hamilton currently sits tied with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel at the top of the drivers’ championship, but said he believes Bottas’ threat makes the title race a three-way fight at a minimum.

“It always was [a three-way fight], at least the three, maybe four. Valtteri’s been right there with us from the beginning, so nothing changes,” Hamilton said.

“I think it’s great that we have how close it is between the teams because then it really brings out the best in each driver, and I just feel when you feel like you’re at your best and do a good job, and you’re fighting against someone else who’s doing just a good a job, it’s that much more exciting.

“The more drivers we have in the mix, the more intense it gets. I don’t think for a long time it’s been more than three or four drivers, but I’m really happy that it is more than just the two of us. There’s going to be lots of ups and downs through the year.

“Valtteri is definitely keeping me on my toes, thoroughly happy for him today. As I said before, he really deserved that lap. His first pole, I know how special it is to have your first pole position. It’s just amazing. You dream of it as a kid. I know he’ll be enjoying it.

“Tomorrow could be his first grand prix win ever. Obviously I’ll try my hardest to win the race, but whichever the case, he’s going to have one at some stage this year if it’s not tomorrow, because he’s getting stronger and stronger.”

The Bahrain Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 10:30am ET on Sunday.

Ferrari teammates Vettel and Raikkonen fastest in rainy final practice at Australian GP

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen went one-two in the final practice session ahead of qualifying at the water-logged Australian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Vettel set a best-lap time of 1 minute, 26.067 seconds, more than 2.4 seconds faster than his teammate in second.

Both Ferrari drivers switched from their intermediate tires to the super-fast, ultra-soft tires for the final few laps of the session, testing conditions on the track after a day-long downpour left it slick and filled with small puddles.

Mercedes drivers Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton did not opt to try out their soft tires, sticking to the intermediates for the entire session. They had the seventh- and eighth-fastest times, after topping the leaderboard in practice in dry conditions on Friday.

The heavy rains subsided by early afternoon, allowing the track to rapidly dry during the third practice session and making conditions safe for drivers to test their soft tires.

Still, only a few drivers completed a timed lap with the softer compounds, with Mercedes, Red Bull and most of the others staying with their intermediates.

Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson had the third-fastest time of the session on ultrasoft tires, followed by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen on intermediates.

Hamilton remains the favorite to capture his fifth straight pole position at the Australian Grand Prix in qualifying later Saturday. He had the fastest laps on ultrasoft tires in the two practice sessions on Friday, though Verstappen was right behind him.

Verstappen and Vettel both slid on the slick track early in the third practice session, but maintained control and completed their runs without incident.

Verstappen’s teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, had the sixth-fastest time of the session. The Australian’s chances of winning his fifth career Grand Prix on his home track in Melbourne took a hit late Friday when he was assessed a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

The Australian driver was penalized for driving too fast under red-flag conditions during Friday’s second practice session because of debris on the track.