Analysis: Bottas starting to show why he could beat Hamilton to the F1 title

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For Valtteri Bottas, victory at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was about redemption.

It was on that long main straight 12 months earlier when a puncture, with seven kilometres to go, would deny him a certain victory and from that moment, a season that had started so brightly would never recover.

But now, after reaching the finish line first in Baku on Sunday, it could be the catalyst for a championship fight against Lewis Hamilton that many still question if Bottas is capable of.

This year started with a different approach by the Finn, knowing he had to start producing the goods in 2019 or face being replaced by Esteban Ocon.

The beard and the porridge have become visual representations of that, and it has produced a steely determination to only take care of number one after becoming the 'wingman' last year.

In Australia, it took him to his most comprehensive win in Formula 1 to date, but his performance on Sunday was even more impressive than that.

First, he showed that desire by repelling an attack from Hamilton at the start, holding his ground around the outside of the first two corners and eventually forcing his teammate to give way.

And then, whereas Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel faded away at Albert Park, he had to be inch-perfect around the challenging streets of Azerbaijan's capital to keep them at bay throughout.

He had taken on the two top names of the past decade and beaten them in a straight duel.

The relief when he flew down the main straight for the final time realising lightning wouldn't strike twice must have been palpable, and it was a Hamilton-like drive to achieve it.

Moments like that are what Bottas needs to produce consistently if he wants to believe that yes, he can launch a championship bid this year.

And with each small victory, such as a pole position, with qualifying another area of improvement this year, that confidence will grow.

Of course, just four races in, there is still a long way to go and converting a strong start to the season into a title challenge is far from easy.

Races like Bahrain and China, when ultimately Valtteri faded into obscurity have to be kept to a minimum.

Then there's the mood of Hamilton which right now does seem quite passive, as it always does early in the year before turning it up later on.

If Bottas can do what Nico Rosberg did so expertly in 2016 and keep the Briton from reaching his best though, that may well be his best chance of remaining ahead.

Doing that is also critical at a time when Mercedes is frankly paranoid about Ferrari. Should the Scuderia mount a charge, the Finn must keep himself in contention and make any kind of team orders decision impossible.

Can he do it? Honestly, the jury is still out because of the tendency to slack off. But if by the summer break the opportunity remains, then anything can happen on the run to Abu Dhabi.

Of what there is no doubt, however, whether this is a new Bottas or not, it is the best Bottas to go up against Hamilton in his three years at the team.

And right now, any thoughts of replacing him with Ocon for next season, the first hurdle he had to overcome this year, appear further away than they ever have.

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