Lewis Hamilton relishing F1 title challenge from Valtteri Bottas

• Mercedes duo have two wins apiece this season
• Ferrari need a strong showing at Spanish Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton goes into this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix supremely confident in his own abilities and at the top of his game but still expecting a tough fight. Just how that contest manifests itself at the Circuit de Catalunya will likely go a long way to identifying who will be the defending world champion’s key rival this season.

Before the first round of the championship a repeat of last year’s title fight between Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was widely expected. Four races in, Ferrari’s challenge cannot be written off but there is a sense Hamilton may be shifting his focus to the threat from across the Mercedes garage in the form of Valtteri Bottas.

The Finn leads the world championship by one point from Hamilton. The pair have taken two wins apiece in securing four successive one-two finishes for Mercedes, results that have secured them clear water from Ferrari. Vettel is 35 points behind Bottas and has not looked nearly as convincing as the resurgent Finn.

This is Bottas’s strongest start to a season and the first time since he joined Mercedes in 2017 that he has been able to match or better Hamilton in a sequence of successive races. It was instructive that in Barcelona Hamilton chose to note that Bottas had been given his performance engineer, Riccardo Musconi, during a winter reshuffle at the team, which he described as a “helping hand” for his teammate. He was also emphatic he would not be allowing Bottas an easy ride on the track.

While Hamilton was still talking up the threat from Vettel and Charles Leclerc of Ferrari, he pointedly remarked Bottas was “more focused than in previous years” and stressed how seriously he took that threat.

“Winning the title is not all about winning a couple of races,” he said. “It is about consistency through the whole season. I’m sure he is going to be strong and competitive all year long and that will be the challenge.”

On track Bottas looks more committed, more confident and crucially more consistent. His two wins in Australia and Azerbaijan were entirely deserved, positive progress he acknowledged. “I honestly think the reason I’ve been able to improve year by year is work,” Bottas said. “Work with the team, work with my ability, focus on all the single details. If you work hard it’s only a matter of time before things start to go right.”

He has stepped up into almost a vacuum left by Ferrari as they have struggled for pace in all but one of the opening four races. Returning to Spain, where their form in testing was so strong, they badly need to unlock the potential they are convinced their car possesses. They have brought an upgraded power unit here, earlier than planned, and new aerodynamic parts as well.

Lewis Hamilton talks with mechanics in the pits.
Lewis Hamilton talks with mechanics in the pits. Photograph: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images

The team principal, Mattia Binotto, accepted they had struggled but insisted they remained in the fight. “We are not happy with the points we have scored so far,” he said. “Our objective is not be where we are, so we cannot be happy with the start of the season but we have a good car and we are still in the battle.”

Vettel was blunt in stating there was no silver bullet to solve their problems, only more work to facilitate a greater understanding of their car, but the clock is ticking. Anything short of a win here would leave them with a mountain to climb. Staying within touching distance of Hamilton and Bottas is essential.

Should they fail to do so and Bottas puts in another winning performance, emphasising his championship credentials, Hamilton’s attention will surely shift to his teammate in his bid for a sixth title.

“I don’t have any doubt in my ability and what I need to do and how to improve,” Hamilton said. “I’m down for whatever challenge I have from whoever is going to challenge me. I’m excited by that and encouraged by that.”

Early indications are that it is Mercedes and Bottas who once again have the edge in Spain. Bottas led first practice one-tenth clear of Vettel, and two tenths up on Leclerc, with Hamilton struggling with tyre preparation in fourth. In the afternoon, Bottas was again quickest but only five-hundredths up on Hamilton, with the two Ferraris a further three-tenths back but expected to show more on Saturday morning.


Giles Richards in Barcelona

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