SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Valtteri Bottas finds himself in the unusual position of leading the Formula One championship and the Mercedes driver has every intention of leaving this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix still at the top.
The 29-year-old Finn, determined not to be seen as a ‘wingman’ to five-time world champion team-mate Lewis Hamilton, won the season-opening Australian Grand Prix with an uncharacteristically gritty drive.
After two races of the 21-round season, Bottas is still ahead of Hamilton — albeit by only a point.
Asked whether he felt he had a target on his back ahead of Sunday’s third race of the year, Bottas told reporters at a cold and overcast Shanghai International Circuit that it certainly played a part in his thinking.
“For sure it’s a factor. If you look at the paper I’m in the lead and I want to keep the position and make the gap bigger,” he said.
“The target is to maintain the lead, but how to get there is by focussing on the work.”
Bottas led Hamilton in a Mercedes one-two in Australia, with the positions reversed in Bahrain two weeks later when Hamilton won after engine problems some 10 laps from the end denied Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc a maiden Formula One win.
The two team mates would have gone into Sunday’s race on level terms but Bottas is ahead thanks to an extra point available this season for setting the fastest race lap, which he scored in Australia.
Soundly beaten by Hamilton last year, when he failed to taste victory while his British team mate won 11 races, the Finn made something of a statement in Australia before then slipping back in Bahrain.
Having reviewed the race, he said it was not a concern.
“In Bahrain … there are definitely things I could have done better,” said Bottas. “It was definitely not a perfect race, very different from Melbourne, but it was nothing to worry about as everything is understood.”
Bottas was on course for victory in China last year until an ill-timed safety car allowed eventual winner Daniel Ricciardo to fit fresh tyres and scythe through the field in his Red Bull.
The Finn said this year’s race, the 1,000th Formula One world championship event, was too close to call.
“It’s a different season, the competitiveness between the teams is different from last year. So who knows what happens,” he said.
Editing by Alan Baldwin/Pritha Sarkar