By Alan Baldwin
SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (Reuters) – Valtteri Bottas bridled at the suggestion last month that he was a “wingman” for Mercedes team mate and championship leader Lewis Hamilton but the Finn may soon find he has no choice in the matter.
Hamilton is now 87 points ahead of his fourth-placed team mate — a tally equivalent to some three and a half race wins — with only eight rounds of the campaign remaining.
Asked whether it was now time for Bottas to play a supporting role, with Ferrari on the rise and the Italian team firmly focused on Sebastian Vettel ahead of team mate Kimi Raikkonen, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff hesitated.
“I hate to do that. It’s completely against my racing instinct and we try to be always very neutral to both drivers and we haven’t done it yet,” he told reporters after Vettel won Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix with Hamilton second.
“We haven’t discussed it, let’s see how Monza pans out and how it goes and then we will address the question whether we need to put all force behind one driver,” added the Austrian, referring to next weekend’s Italian Grand Prix.
“But at the moment we owe it to the two men and to Formula One to not interfere into the racing.”
Vettel and Hamilton both have five victories this season while their Finnish team mates have had to make do with regular podium appearances.
Hamilton is 17 points ahead of Vettel but that advantage is in danger of being whittled down in the coming races, with Ferrari possibly enjoying a speed advantage at Monza and fancying their chances for Singapore.
Wolff called Bottas a “sensational wingman” after holding off the Ferraris while Hamilton won last month’s Hungarian Grand Prix, a description that stung the unsmiling Finn.
“First of all, wingman hurts,” he said, while recognising that the points gap was big.
Bottas finished fourth in Belgium and now has 144 points to Hamilton’s 231. Raikkonen, who retired on Sunday, has 146 — 68 less than Vettel, whose number one status is unquestioned.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)