How Hamilton is facing up to Mercedes' harsh new reality

For Lewis Hamilton, Saturday’s Imola sprint race must have been one of the most frustrating afternoons of his Formula 1 career.

How Hamilton is facing up to Mercedes' harsh new reality

Having qualified only 13th after struggling to get temperature into his Pirellis, it was logical to expect to see the seven-time F1 world champion make some progress, and at least get himself into the top 10 for the start of the main race on Sunday.

In fact he lost a couple of places at the start, and at the end of 21 laps had only managed to recover to 14th. His team-mate George Russell fared little better, starting and finishing 11th.

The dire sprint event was a real wake-up call for the team. After qualifying Mercedes engineering chief Andrew Shovlin had acknowledged the lack of pace over one lap on the cold and damp track, but he remained confident that the W13 is the third-fastest race car at the moment.

Hamilton and Russell certainly didn’t have the chance to show that in the sprint, and if there was any inherent advantage over some of those ahead, it wasn’t sufficient to allow the drivers to do much with it on a track with just one DRS zone.

"So painful,” said Hamilton when asked by Autosport how shocking the lack of progress was.

“It's difficult, there's no words for it, really. I don't know what the sims said, I think we were hopeful that we could get into the top 10 if we weren't stuck in the train. I think we have the pace to have been in the top 10. But unfortunately, that just wasn't possible today with DRS and the speed we had.

"Of course, the goal is to move as far forward as possible. But it's a challenge with the car. We're not particularly quick on the straights. And the bouncing that we have doesn't necessarily help.

“I think the delta that you're supposed to have to the car ahead is something like nine-tenths at this track, to have a 50% chance of overtaking. And so I don't think we have nine-tenths advantage on the cars that we're competing with.

"We've got to try and eke out as much as we can in the race, and if we can score some points, I do believe we can get into the points. So every point counts.”

Hamilton only finished 14th in the sprint after losing places, regaining the position he lost to Stroll at the start

Hamilton only finished 14th in the sprint after losing places, regaining the position he lost to Stroll at the start

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

You might think that a couple of hours after the sprint Hamilton would still be in a deep funk. However, talking to the media over Zoom he revealed a thoughtful and philosophical view about the current situation, and was searching for positives.

He also harked back to a question he was asked by a French journalist at the start of the Barcelona test in February. That exchange went like this:

Q: Any fear that the team may not be able to give you a car that can win with and fight for the championship?

HAM: “Why would I feel that way? Why would I ever think that? We’ve won eight in a row. Why would I ever feel that way?”

Q: They can make a mistake building the car...

HAM: “My team don’t make mistakes. Of course there is always a risk. We don’t make mistakes. We’ve got a lot of intelligent people back in the factory, I trust them 100%. And whatever we start with today, good or bad, we’ll work through it. We’ve always had a great development plan to work towards.”

Clearly that conversation had stuck in Hamilton’s mind, and to his credit he recalled it on Saturday afternoon, in effect admitting that he was wrong to be so dismissive at the time.

"It's difficult, for sure,” he said of the current situation. “But, you know, I'm not the only one in the team, right? We're all feeling the pain. We're all right in this together. And we win and we lose as a team. So we are doing the best we can with what we have.

PLUS: How external factors have disguised the true scale of Mercedes' turnaround task

“Earlier on in the year in Barcelona a question was put to me, 'What happens if you get it wrong?' And I said, ‘Well, we don't do that, we don't get things wrong. We're world champions.’

“But the fact is, with all the possibilities out there, we may have. But what we continue to do is just keep our heads down, keep working. If one person is down, we rely on our team-mates to lift each other up.

“And yeah, we're nowhere near where we want to be. But we will just keep fighting, keep working as hard as we can, and hope that eventually we see light at the end of the tunnel."

Hamilton remains determined not to get his head down amid Mercedes' lack of form

Hamilton remains determined not to get his head down amid Mercedes' lack of form

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

Asked if the W13 was a flawed concept he said he didn’t know, but he remains hopeful that there is performance in there somewhere.

"Well, it's all reasonable questions,” he said. “I mean, I can't say whether the car is flawed, the concept is flawed. I'm not an aerodynamicist. And at some stage, we will have a better understanding of whether that is the case or not, or whether we are in the right.

“Maybe all of a sudden we'll fix the bouncing, and we’ll unlock more potential. So it's difficult to write it off anytime soon, because everyone's continuing to work on it. But hopefully, it comes to light soon, one way or another, whichever way it is, and then we can start putting our focus on to the solution, because we haven't found the solution yet.

“Of course, I want to be fighting for the world championship. But unfortunately, that's not the case. And we have to accept the reality which we're faced with, and it's what we do as racers, we keep fighting."

In testing and the first couple of races the general assumption was that Mercedes would quickly address its issues and soon get onto the pace of the frontrunners.

That hasn’t happened, and the points gap to Ferrari and Red Bull is growing by the weekend. There are still 19 races to go after Imola, but has Hamilton already accepted that his title chance has slipped away?

"I know there's a lot of points available,” he said. “And theoretically, yes, it's still possible. But one has to be realistic. And the problems we have are not small. The car in terms of how it drives is, the issues we have in the way it behaves... These guys are seconds, over a second ahead, as a worst case scenario.

“If we happen to fix this in the next race, which we don't currently have anything coming to fix it for the next race, we don't have a solution just yet. Even to design something, if we do find what the solution is and we have to change it, the team will work as hard as it can, but things could take a month in design and getting those things built.

“So I think we keep our heads down, we remain hopeful. We continue to chase. But you just have to keep an eye on the realistic position we're in, and just got to work hard to make sure that we're not in this position next year.”

Mercedes W13 has proven difficult for Hamilton and Russell to drive

Mercedes W13 has proven difficult for Hamilton and Russell to drive

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

He made an interesting point about just how much the W13 has to improve by: “I've never been this far down, we know how these championships work, and with those two teams at the front, Ferrari and Red Bull who are punching out serious performance, we've got to find a second and a half at least soon, to be ahead of them and finish ahead of them every single race for the rest of the year basically. That's not going to be easy."

Typically Hamilton is trying to channel his current disappointment into a positive outcome as part of his efforts to motivate the team.

"Initially it's frustrating, because you see those points that people are putting away and you want to be in that fight. But when you're struggling to even get into the top 10 the sooner you can accept the reality which you're faced with, the sooner you can move that energy, that negative or that strain onto a positive effort.

“And that's supporting the aerodynamicists and the people that are working at the factory, who are really feeling the brunt of the weight of the results that we're getting at the moment, but they're doing everything they can.

“Us here at the track, everyone's trying to work their hardest, but it doesn't seem to be getting the results that we want, or deserve.

“But these things are said to try us, this will only make us stronger. As painful as it's going to be.”

Inevitably Hamilton’s current struggles have encouraged questions about his future. He’s committed to Mercedes until the end of 2023, but with seven titles behind him and having turned 37 in January does he really want to be battling just to get into the points?

“I've seen a couple of comments from certain individuals that I remember growing up, respecting when I was younger,” he said. “But ultimately, their comments are silly, and a bunch of nonsense. All in the aim to get headlines to keep themselves relevant.

“But look, I've been with Mercedes since I was 13. We've had amazing times together, we've ridden the highs and lows together. I am 100% committed to this team. There's nowhere else that I want to be, just because we've hit a rough patch. Just not in my DNA to back up. We are still world champions.

Hamilton has full faith in his team, which won the constructors' title last year

Hamilton has full faith in his team, which won the constructors' title last year

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

“And we can fix this. It's going to take longer, it's going to take a painful year, I think ultimately, it's going to be a painful year that we're going to have to ride out together. And with the belief that we can rectify it at some point maybe through the year, or even worst case scenario, at least for next year.”

Hamilton knows that he and Russell have to lead by example: “What we try to do is be the best team-mates we can, try to explain as much as we can through communication. We try to push as hard as we can constructively, we try to have constructive criticism.

“But then also just geeing up the guys, don't give up, keep pushing, we can get there. Team work really does make the dream work. We're not living the dream at the moment, but we still are the dream team.”

The 2022 season is set to be a long one for Hamilton if Mercedes can't unlock the potential from its W13 car

The 2022 season is set to be a long one for Hamilton if Mercedes can't unlock the potential from its W13 car

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

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