Bottas becoming third horse in F1 title race

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Formula One loves a rivalry - Senna-Prost, Hunt-Lauda, Hamilton-Rosberg.

But while the sport's latest head-to-head - between championship leader Sebastian Vettel and closest challenger Lewis Hamilton - has neared boiling point in recent weeks, one man has quietly driven himself into title contention.

Having stepped into the sizeable boots of reigning champion Nico Rosberg at the end of last season, Valtteri Bottas has grown into the role after a shaky start and could have a huge say in the destination of this year's crown.

Despite a podium finish on his Mercedes debut in Australia, a spin behind the safety car and a sixth-place finish in China led some to question whether Bottas was up to the job.

Team boss Toto Wolff said his new driver "threw it away" with the error, while Bottas admitted to feeling "pretty s***" after making what he described over team radio as an "amateur mistake".

But Bottas responded well, returning to the podium in Bahrain before claiming a maiden grand prix victory in Russia.

And the 27-year-old's bid to close the gap on the top two has stepped up a gear in recent weeks, flying largely under the radar as Vettel and Hamilton dominate the headlines following their clash in Azerbaijan.

Three races ago, Bottas trailed Vettel by 54 points and was 29 adrift of Mercedes team-mate Hamilton.

Drivers' standings after round six

1. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) - 129 points
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) - 104 points
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) - 75 points
4. Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) - 67 points
5. Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) - 52 points

After two runner-up finishes and a victory in his last three outings, including a superb recovery drive in Baku and a win from pole in Austria, Bottas has closed the gap to 35 on Vettel and just 15 to Hamilton.

Drivers' standings after round nine

1. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) - 171 points
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) - 151 points
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) - 136 points
4. Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) - 107 points
5. Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari)- 83 points

And the Finn insists his ambition has always been to win the title.

"For me, since the day I signed with Mercedes, what else can you put as a target? So it's been always the target," he said after Sunday's race. 

"I don't want to shout about it too much. It's still early days in the championship and more than 50 per cent to go, so a massive amount of points to get. 

"With this team I'm developing so much every single race and I feel like I'm getting better every time, even though we've had some unlucky ones as well.

"But so will the other guys as well. It's still a long year ahead and for sure we'll be in the championship fight." 

Any suggestion that the F1 season was becoming a two-horse race in 2017 look to have been premature. Bottas is back in the running and building some encouraging form as the season nears its midway point.