SPIELBERG, Austria, July 9 (Reuters) - Whisper it quietly, but Valtteri Bottas is increasingly looking like a Formula One title contender after the Mercedes driver kept his cool to win Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix from pole position.
The unassuming Finn will never be a man to beat his chest and bellow his challenge from the rooftops but, in a typically understated way, he left no doubt that his hat was with the others in the ring.
In fact, Bottas maintained it had always been there.
“Since the day I signed with Mercedes, what else can you put as a target?,” he said.
“It’s always been the target but I don’t want to shout about it too much.”
With his second win in nine races, since joining the champions from Williams in January as replacement for retired 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg, Bottas closed the gap to team mate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s leader Sebastian Vettel.
Hamilton, the triple world champion who started the season as established favourite and is second overall, is now closer to Bottas - the gap is only 15 points - than he is to Vettel (20).
“I don’t want to think about it too much because we’re not even halfway and it doesn’t help anything to start thinking about it,” Bottas said of the championship.
“By making a thing about winning the title, it doesn’t change anything. You need to go race by race, session by session, lap by lap. But I know as a fact...with the points, I’m still in the fight.”
Hamilton, who has won three races this year and suffered setbacks with a loose headrest robbing him of victory in Azerbaijan and a gearbox problem dropping him five places on Sunday’s grid, could only agree.
“There was never a point when he wasn’t in the fight,” he told reporters.
“I think it was only you guys that had maybe potentially suggested he wasn’t in the battle. I always assumed he was and that (the win) just shows he still is.”
Bottas was so quick off the line at the start that both Vettel and Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo were immediately on the radio to their teams to raise the possibility he had jumped the lights.
A stewards’ investigation revealed that it was legal, with an exceptional reaction time of 0.2 seconds recorded by the car’s transponder.
Bottas said he never had any doubts.
“I‘m developing so much at every race and getting better all the time,” he said. Asked in which area he felt he was making particular progress, the Finn smiled: “From today, it seems like race starts.” (Editing by Ed Osmond)