Friday, March 03, 2023

By Philip Duncan, PA F1 Correspondent, Bahrain

A disheartened Lewis Hamilton said Mercedes are on the “wrong track” and fears he has fallen further behind in his quest to take a record eighth world crown.

Off the back of his worst campaign in Formula One, Hamilton, 38, will have been desperate to revive former glories – starting at this weekend’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

But in his under-performing Mercedes machinery, Hamilton finished eighth in practice on Friday – six tenths behind Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso – who ended the day as the surprise pace setter. Max Verstappen was next, 0.169 seconds behind.

Mercedes might have solved their porpoising woes, but they still have an unruly car, with Hamilton’s team-mate George Russell even further back in 13th, one second slower than Alonso.

And moments after stepping out of his cockpit, Hamilton delivered a damning verdict.

“We found out we are a long way off,” he said. “We knew that a little bit from last week’s test but it is a big gap. We are either where we were last year, if not, a little bit further behind.

“It is difficult for everybody, and it is really not where anyone in the team wants to be, or deserves to be, because everyone works so hard, but we are just on the wrong track.

“We have to graft away and get ourselves on the right track, but right now we are a long way off the guys in front. It looks like Aston Martin are second and we are either third or fourth.

“I have to be hopeful. There was good progress last year, but the gap wasn’t as big as it is now.

“Do I believe we can close the gap at some stage? Yes, but I think it is quite hard with the concept we have.”

Hamilton’s gloomy remarks will come as a major blow, not just to the 38-year-old entering the final season of his £40million-a-year contract, but to all those at Mercedes – the team which once ruled the sport.

For now that honour lies with reigning world champions Red Bull, despite Alonso springing the prospect of a shock win by topping the time sheets in practice. Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez finished third.

Lawrence Stroll, Aston Martin’s billionaire owner, set his side the target of winning the world championship in an ambitious five-year project.

But after two underwhelming seasons back on the Formula One grid – finishing seventh of the grid’s 10 teams in both 2021 and 2022 – Aston Martin have suddenly created a machine to fight at the sharp end.

Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel headed for the hills after growing tired of making up the numbers. But his replacement Alonso – who last won a race 10 years ago and made his debut in 2001 – finds himself in the right place at the right time.

Times in practice have to be treated with a pinch of salt, but Alonso will be fuelled with belief that he could be in contention to add to his tally of 32 wins, 17 years after he claimed the second of his back-to-back championships.

“I would lie if I said it was not feeling good,” said the 41-year-old. “But everything is relative to what the other teams are doing.

“We have to be proud of the steps we have taken because it has been a very intense two or three months’ work in the factory.

“The target has to be fighting for the championship in the long term, although I don’t think that will be this year.”

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