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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.

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.