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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.

F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

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Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.