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Mercedes' British driver George Russell (L) and Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton compete during the qualifying session for the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya on June 3, 2023 in Montmelo, on the outskirts of Barcelona. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

Hamilton: Shocked! Real surprise to see us so far up front

Mercedes' British driver George Russell (L) and Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton compete during the qualifying session for the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya on June 3, 2023 in Montmelo, on the outskirts of Barcelona. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

Lewis Hamilton was pleasantly shocked after qualifying fourth for the 2023 Spanish Grand Prix, despite a near miss after scraping paint with Mercedes teammate George Russell, during a tricky qualifying session at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on Saturday.

How times change, for a driver used to starting Grand Prix races from the front row, 103 times from the top spot. Hamilton’s relief of being within half a second of Max Verstappen’s pole-winning time was telling, and an indication of how desperate the once-serial winners are currently.

Speaking after his 317th F1 qualifying, Hamilton told reporters: “Firstly, absolutely shocked, it was a real surprise to see us so far up front and, ultimately, competing for the front row. We did some great work overnight with the analysis. I was here until 11 pm last night trying to figure out where we could find the time. When I woke up this morning I was on a mission.

“I definitely didn’t expect us to be fighting for the front row. The car came alive from FP3. Our whole package. A big thank you to everyone at the factory, this shows we are progressing, which I’m so grateful to see. I really enjoyed driving the car.

“I was basically front row all the way until Turn 10. I got into Turn 10, got on the power and the car snapped into an oversteer. I have to see exactly what happened. That’s where I lost two-tenths. I’m not killer-disappointed. Maybe if I was fighting for a world championship I would be. I’m more encouraged to see the car where it is and hopefully [Sunday] we can progress forwards.”

As for the close call during Q3, on the main straight with teammate Russell, which included bits of bodywork flying off the Black Arrows, the Briton replied: “The car didn’t feel massively different. Afterwards, the car was pulled to the right. It was just a miscommunication thing. On the [final] lap it was alright.”

Evidently unsighted hence moving around on the track and making a mockery of F1 mirrors in the process, Russell gave his side of the story: “I wasn’t even aware he was there. I was starting my lap, trying to take the slipstream from Sainz. Fortunately, nothing bad happened.”

As for what went wrong for him on the day, 12th and no Q3 his plight, the Englishman said: “Everything to be honest. Straight out of the box in run one I had no grip on the tyres. The car started to bounce a lot in the high-speed corners, so I couldn’t take the corners flat out when we were doing so this morning.

“A really, really odd session. I’m not surprised to be out in Q2. The car was just totally off the pace, I didn’t have a good feeling with it. Disappointing for sure. We did change some things but nothing that we would have expected to have such a substantial effect.

Maybe one thing I can contribute towards the lack of performance was, it was clearly tricky for everyone out there but we shouldn’t be out in this position, so a shame,” lamented Russell.

Hamilton shares a record six Spanish Grand Prix wins with Michael Schumacher, the Mercedes driver winning the race in Barcelona five times in a row between 2017 and 2021. In the highly unlikely (but never impossible in F1) scenario that Sir Lewis wins on Sunday, it will make him the most successful driver to compete at the venue and take his tally of wins to a remarkable 104.

Meanwhile, Hamilton is enduring the longest win-less season of his illustrious career, while younger teammate Russell has lucked into what was once, not long ago, the mightiest F1 team ever, at the wrong time of their history