Bottas bidding to join title battle in Spain

The unflappable Finn, who has emerged as a serious threat not only to his more celebrated team-mate three-time champion Lewis Hamilton, but also championship leading four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, believes his determination, form and speed justify his optimism.

But on return to the track the drivers and teams know most intimately from days of pre-season testing, he knows also that the Circuit de Catalunya is capable of throwing up the most unexpected and unpredictable results – as Dutch teenager Max Verstappen’s win on debut for Red Bull last year demonstrated.

“I was very happy to gain my first win in sochi,” said Bottas. “And getting that win has definitely given me a lot of confidence that I can do it – because I always thought that I had the ability.

“And now it’s done all I want to do is to go and win again and again.”

Another Bottas win would not be a surprise at a venue that has a habit of producing more different winners than anywhere else – if he is successful, he will be the 11th different winner in as many years.

His recent bright form – pole position in Bahrain and victory at Sochi – has confirmed him as a worthy successor to retired 2016 World Champion German Nico Rosberg at Mercedes where, temporarily, he has managed to put Briton Hamilton in the shade.

But that does not mean much as the teams, all with upgraded packages, begin the ‘European season’ with Ferrari likely to set the pace if the weather conditions put the onus on tyre management.

The Italian team has a car that is less demanding on its rubber and operates well across a wider range of temperatures than the Mercedes.

For Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, it is a concern, but not yet a serious worry.

“I don't think there is a particular pattern yet," he said. "It is all very marginal with tyre compounds, interaction with the track, the surface of the track and the track temperature itself.

“And then there is surface bulk and carcass temperatures… There is so much interaction you have to get right in order to be in the window.

“But, one thing is for sure -- we have a very fast race car and a fast qualifying car. We just need to tune it and this is an exciting exercise.”

Tyre suppliers Pirelli will take their harder tyres, not greatly loved by Mercedes on the evidence so far this year, to Spain this weekend.

“I think it will be close – in fact more than very close," added Wolff. “Ferrari came out of the winter with a good car and it seems to suit Sebastian a lot. So, we just need to stretch ourselves to perform as good as we can and, if we do like we did in Russia with Valtteri, we are able to compete."

He explained also that the team had no immediate explanation for Hamilton’s uninspired form in Sochi where he struggled with the car.

"Lewis had a difficult weekend in both qualifying and the race," said Wolff.

"We've since been unpicking what happened to understand why we couldn't get the car in the right window so he could feel comfortable with it."

Hamilton said he was mystified by his lack of pace as he finished fourth to fall 13 points adrift of Vettel after four rounds of the championship.

"We must give him the tools he needs to do the job in the next races and that will be a big focus for us," added Wolff.

"Barcelona will be interesting as our pre-season was not spectacular in Spain. It's a very different track to Sochi and we'll be running with harder tyres. So, we are taking this season one race at a time...”

Ferrari and Mercedes may be the front-runners again, but Red Bull expect to be close in pursuit with a heavily-updated car while local hero two-time champion Spaniard Fernando Alonso has more modest hopes.

After failing to start in Russia, he is hoping his revised McLaren Honda will be on the grid to take part in his home race this Sunday. 

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