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Hamilton: I’m getting used to that flat feeling now

hamilton melbourne-001

Now for the third season in a row, the Mercedes F1 team continue to have little idea of what makes their W15 go fast (or slow!) and not understanding their car did Lewis Hamilton no favours during Qualifying for the 2024 Australian Grand Prix.

F1 Stats show that Hamilton has started the GP in Melbourne from pole positions on eight occasions, this Sunday he will line up P11 with teammate George Russell in P7 after a Saturday that served to expose how lost Mercedes are in the third year of the current F1 rules.

The weekend thus far in Melbourne, there was decent pace early on with Russell P3 and Hamilton P9. But for FP2 Hamilton went aggressive with his setup to chase better times. But that ‘Hail Mary’ setup change was short 1.5 seconds on the prime time in FP2.

Then they thought they got it right for Qualy when HAM-RUS were P4-P5 and within a tenth of the top time. But that did not translate to pace when it mattered. Hamilton was only good for P11 when the chips were down. Seven-tenths slower than the top time (set by Carlos Sainz in the Ferrari) in the second stanza of the session.

Hence, Russell was the only Silver Arrow in Q3, and P7 was his reward, albeit eight-tenths of a second shy of Max Verstappen’s pole-winning time in the Red Bull.

Hamilton:  I’m less consistent than George who is doing a better job

hamilton melbourne fp3

Immediately after Albert Park Qualifying, asked to sum up his feelings after being knocked out early, Hamilton replied: “I’m getting used to it now. Getting knocked out of Q2. It’s kind of just a flat feeling. It’s not great, feels like it’s been a bit of a fight all weekend long.

Asked how he is coping with the harsh reality of another year of struggles, his last as a Mercedes driver, Hamilton replied: “I mean, I don’t know if I’m dealing with it that great. I’m less consistent than George who is doing a better job with the car.

“Three Qualifyings in a row that he has out-qualified me, he just seems to get on a lot better than I do. So I just trying to kind of keep my head above water and just continue to realise that it could be way worse,” reasoned the 39-year-old Briton.

After wayward Friday, when the team went backwards with the setup on the #44 Mercedes, they appeared to have recovered with Hamilton ending the final practice session P4, within a tenth of a second of the P1 best time.

But that only flattered to deceive later, as Hamilton explained: “Earlier in the day, it felt great in FP3. It was strange because we were right there with these guys and we didn’t really understand why. But then go into qualifying, it’s just another inconsistency within the car, it really messes with the mind.”

Wolff: I think we have a car that’s difficult

Hamilton Mercedes Wolff: I think we have a car that's difficult

In contrast, Russell made it into Q3 and will start from P7 on the grid, with Hamilton lining up P11. The seven-time F1 World Champion acknowledged his teammate’s performance: “George did a good job. It is what it is. I just have to try to do a better job on Sunday.

“I think our car is on a bit of a knife edge. In the afternoon here the wind picks up, the same as P2. P1 was a bit better and then when the wind picks up, the car becomes a lot more unstable. And then this morning was nice with calmer wind, and then as soon as the wind picks up it gets a little bit less stable.

“But the other teams picked their pace up in qualifying. I’m not sure why, but the grid didn’t feel the same in qualifying. Even though we had lighter fuel, it felt better in FP3. So it’s not a great feeling, for everyone in the team, but we’ll just keep cracking away,” added Hamilton.

With his statements made after Melbourne qualifying, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff has all but thrown in the towel with an understatement of note: “I think we have a car that’s difficult.

“You can be narrowly in and out of the window. It’s the whole interaction of aerodynamics and mechanical and the tyres. It’s never a single topic. But we are going to just keep our heads down and push through this. I think it’s an illusion to go closer to Red Bull in the short term but I still have to believe that there is more in this car,” ventured Wolff.

Russell: Albert Park circuit is definitely not playing to our strengths

Russell: Albert Park circuit is definitely not playing to our strengths qualifying mercedes

With Hamilton Ferrari bound at the end of the year, Russell needs to make a case for Mercedes to consider him the natural heir to ‘number one’ status, and by outqualifying the best Qualifier in F1 history, three-nil after three sessions so far this year. He is ticking all the right boxes.

Russell said after Saturday’s session: “It wasn’t the qualifying session we were hoping for today. It was challenging to get the tyres in the right window, and it is so tight out there that a few tenths can have a major impact. The car felt strong in FP3 but unfortunately that feeling didn’t quite translate into the afternoon.

“We know where we need to improve the car and that is in the high-speed corners. Unfortunately, there are a decent amount of those here in Melbourne, so this circuit is definitely not playing to our strengths.

“I do think we’ll be in a better place [in the race] though when everyone has the fuel in their car. There are also many unknowns heading into the race. Nobody has run the Hard tyre, and that will be the compound that is primarily in use throughout.

“We may also see some graining. I think it will be a more exciting race here than we usually see. And ultimately, it is the Grand Prix where points are scored,” reckoned Russell.

Shovlin: FP3 pace didn’t carry into qualifying and we finished a disappointing P7 and P11

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Of concern is that Mercedes engineers continue to be puzzled by their temperamental W15, three years into the new regulations and they still have no clue what makes these cars faster or not. Friday’s “aggressive” setup change for Hamilton’s car only served to further confuse them as he was nowhere in FP2.

Mercedes trackside boss Andrew Shovlin, all but confirmed their lack of fundamental understanding of the car they produced for this campaign: “It felt like we’d made good progress overnight and the car was working well across FP3 this morning. However, that pace didn’t seem to carry into qualifying and we finished a disappointing P7 and P11.

“The track was a little hotter and it was a little windier in qualifying, but that does not fully explain why the car was well-behaved in one session and such a handful the next. The work to understand those issues will carry on in the background as we turn our focus to the race.

“We’ve hopefully improved the long run since Friday, but we need to be realistic as to what we can achieve from our starting positions. Managing the tyres is a challenge here. They can be fragile, but we will be a few laps in before we can start to see how we are performing in terms of degradation.

“It’s also a race where the strategy is normally dictated by incidents on track. We’ll be on our toes and hopefully, we can still take away a decent number of points,” concluded Shovlin in the team report.

Wolff: It is frustrating that we are still saying this

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff hopes his wife's legal action brings F1's governance into the real world - Wolff: It is frustrating that we are still saying this mercedes

Mercedes dependent on luck and hope is the best they have for the race in Australia on Sunday, starting from P11, Hamilton best survive ‘playing’ where he has seldom played during his illustrious career aka the wrong end of the mid-pack, with Russell a little further up. But starting P7 is also a recipe for Turn 1 DNF.

In other words the once mighty Silver Arrows are in midpack mayhem and look to be there for a while. Pecking order-wise Down Under, the runners-up in last year’s F1 Constructors’ Championship are behind Red Bull by an alarming margin in F1 terms, also trailing Ferrari by some and even behind their McLaren customers. Probably on par with the Aston Martins.

Final word to Wolff on the downfall of Mercedes: “We will keep our heads down and work through this. The car has potential, as can be seen by our performance in FP3. It is tricky to consistently get it into this place though and improving that is what we are focused on doing.

“It is frustrating that we are still saying this, but we will continue to keep working on it. It is not because of a lack of trying that we are where we are, and we will push to get better,” added Wolff, for what must be the umpteenth in the past two F1 seasons.

For two-time Australian GP winner Hamilton, his last race for Mercedes at Albert Park is his 335th in F1 For Russell, it will be his 107th start in the top-flight.

Big Question: In the third year of these F1 rules, how come Mercedes still have no clue how to make their car go faster?