Valtteri Bottas has hinted that his good-natured relationship with Lewis Hamilton could come under threat after he slashed the deficit to his Mercedes team-mate in the championship.
Hamilton, who finished only fourth at the Russian Grand Prix as he mysteriously struggled for pace, was among the first to congratulate Bottas after he held off Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to register his maiden win in Formula One.
The 32-year-old Briton hugged Bottas in parc ferme, and latterly managed a smile and clenched fist for the cameras as Mercedes celebrated the Finn’s victory in front of their garage after the race.
Bottas’ victory, however, has taken him to within ten points of his team-mate, and in doing so, diminished any suggestion that the Mercedes new boy will simply be an able deputy to Hamilton this year.
“Lewis said he was happy for me which was very nice from him,” Bottas said. “We have been able to be very professional so far. If he has been in front of me I tell him honestly that he has done a great job, and vice-versa. It is good to see that from a three-time world champion. The Ferrari drivers were saying well done, too.
“But it is going to be a long year, and at some point things might get a bit more tricky and tight. When it comes to the championship fight, there might be less talking and more fighting on track.”
Bottas was hired as a remedy to the fractious atmosphere created at Mercedes following the toxicity of Hamilton’s rivalry with Nico Rosberg.
But Bottas’s early-season form, in which he has now out-qualified Hamilton at successive grands prix before delivering a crushing victory over the Briton here – the gap on track was an eye-watering half-a-minute – may provide Mercedes with a new headache.
Not just the possibility of another intra-team squabble, but that Vettel, the clear number one at Ferrari, could romp to the title if Hamilton and Bottas continue to take points off each other.
Yet Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda, the two Austrians in charge at Mercedes, are both confident that the ugly in-team fighting, which at times marred Mercedes’ dominance over the past three years, will not resurface this season.
“The relationship between the two of them is very intact,” Wolff said. “Lewis was one of the first ones to congratulate Valtteri on his first race victory and that shows the respect that they have towards one another. Both of them are fierce competitors and want to win races and fight for the championship, but I don’t think it will affect the relationship and the dynamics within the team like it did in the last years between Nico and Lewis. It is a completely different relationship.”
Mercedes’ non-executive chairman Lauda added: “They have not been hot so far, and they have been nice because the Finn is not talking much. There is no extra aggravation which we had last year.
“Lewis is a professional and the other one, too, so I don’t see any problems because Valtteri won this race. They respect each other and this is the most important thing.”