Hamilton unsure of Mercedes' Sunday ceiling after Melbourne qualifying boost

By Sports Desk April 01, 2023

Lewis Hamilton suspects Mercedes' sensational Saturday in Melbourne may not be achievable at other tracks and is still unsure if he and George Russell can fight to win the Australian Grand Prix.

Mercedes drivers and officials had been pessimistic in their forecasts for the season prior to qualifying in this week's third race.

But Russell secured a place on the front row alongside Max Verstappen, with Hamilton qualifying third-fastest to put the Silver Arrows in a great position to attack Red Bull's world champion.

"I'm a little bit surprised; maybe they are also a little bit surprised," Verstappen said in Saturday's press conference. "But I guess it's a good thing."

It is certainly a good thing for Mercedes, although Hamilton is not convinced this means all their issues have gone away.

"I think it's perhaps track-specific," he said, "but I think ultimately there's no one in the team that's had their heads down, in terms of giving up.

"Everyone's been working incredibly hard to try to squeeze the most out of what we currently have."

Verstappen had not previously qualified on pole in Melbourne, where he is still waiting for his first win.

Hamilton has a joint-record eight poles at this event, winning twice, and added: "I think this gives everyone in the team a boost and a glimpse of hope and this will spur everyone on and will inspire everyone to continue to push.

"We know that if we can just bring a little bit of performance, we can close the gap to the front. Still, there are going to be places where the gap is a lot bigger."

Russell did not entirely concur, countering: "For sure, we maximised the job, no doubt about it, but we had a good qualifying last week in Jeddah.

"I didn't put my lap together in the last run in Jeddah and was only a tenth off P3.

"So no, I don't think it's necessarily track-specific. I do think we're making some improvement with the understanding of the car."

But Hamilton and Russell were in agreement that Red Bull, even with Sergio Perez encountering issues and failing to make it out of Q1, remain the team to beat.

Russell said: "I do still think Red Bull are a class ahead of everybody else.

"For sure Lewis and I got the most out of it today, [but] by the sounds of what Max is saying, there was probably still a little bit more in the locker.

"And we're talking that three-tenths is a little bit – normally, they're a second ahead; now, they're three-tenths ahead – that's still a huge amount in the world of F1."

If only for this weekend, though, can Mercedes challenge Red Bull for the top step of the podium? Hamilton still does not know.

"I haven't even done a long run," he explained. "So tomorrow, going into the race, will be the first time I do so.

"And I've not seen where we tally up compared to them. We have to expect they're going to be a quarter of a second, half a second, at least, quicker than us.

"But maybe in the tow, maybe we can just about hold on; maybe the fact that there's two of us and only one Red Bull, maybe with strategy, maybe we can apply some pressure to them. So, we'll see."

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    Hamilton and Russell finished sixth and seventh respectively as Max Verstappen held off a charging Lando Norris for his third successive victory at the Imola event.

    Russell was ahead of Hamilton as his tyres began to wear late in the race, leading Mercedes to call him in for a pit stop and bring him out ahead of eighth-placed Sergio Perez.

    That ensured Hamilton finished above his team-mate for a second straight race, having failed to top him in any of the first five races of 2024.

    Russell refused to criticise the team's strategy after the race, though he lamented their continued struggles with their W15 car.

    "You're never going to be happy with P6 and P7," Russell told Sky Sports.

    "At the end of the day, as a team we scored an extra point. I lost my position to Lewis but I'm not going to sulk over losing a P6."

    Asked to explain the decision, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said: "[Russell's] lap times were getting slower and slower, and our forecast saw he was not going to make it to the end and we didn't want to lose the position to Perez.

    "Lewis would have probably taken him anyway. The point being that we are racing for P6 and P7 and wanted to keep the Red Bull behind. It was a safety call."

    Russell is currently seventh in the drivers' championship standings with Hamilton in eighth, with neither driver managing a podium finish so far this year.

    McLaren have emerged as the foremost challengers to Red Bull and Ferrari in recent weeks, leaving Mercedes marooned in a disappointing fourth place in the team standings. 

    "This is where we are right now, a little bit in no man's land behind the Ferraris and McLarens but ahead of the midfield," Russell said of their struggles.

    "Everyone is still super motivated, the morale isn't dropping at all, which is quite inspiring to say. Everyone is trying to make this work and improve it."

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    It initially looked like Norris might face a battle for second as Charles Leclerc closed on him, but he found extraordinary pace late on as leader Max Verstappen started to struggle.

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    Norris has now managed four podium finishes in the last five races, and he sits fourth in the drivers' championship standings, six points behind Sergio Perez in third.

    He finished second at the Chinese Grand Prix last month, then beat Verstappen to claim his first race win in Miami in early May, benefitting from effective upgrades to McLaren's MCL38 car.

    "Hopefully, it continues like that because it's exciting, it's tough, and it gets you excited every weekend, so I'm looking forward to the next few," he said.

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    Max Verstappen held off a charging Lando Norris on the final lap to get back to winning ways at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix on Sunday.

    Having equalled Ayrton Senna's record of eight successive pole positions on Saturday, the three-time world champion initially looked set for a comfortable victory.

    It looked like third might be the best Norris could manage, but the Briton found great pace late on and ultimately challenged for the win, as Verstappen expressed frustration over Red Bull team radio, saying he was struggling for grip when turning.

    Norris pulled within 0.7 seconds of Verstappen on the final lap, but he was ultimately unable to follow up his win at the Miami Grand Prix last time out as the drivers' championship leader clung on.

    Charles Leclerc captured third for Ferrari in front of an enthusiastic Italian crowd, with Oscar Piastri finishing fourth after his grid penalty meant he started the race fifth instead of second.

    Carlos Sainz was fifth ahead of Mercedes duo Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, with Verstappen's team-mate Sergio Perez only managing eighth, meaning he now trails Leclerc in the standings.

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    On Saturday, Verstappen became the first driver with back-to-back poles at Imola since Michael Schumacher in 2002 and 2003. One day later, he became just the second driver to win on three successive visits to the track, after the German achieved that feat between 2002 and 2004.

    Verstappen is also into the top six in the all-time F1 charts for podium finishes, his 104th here moving him ahead of Kimi Raikkonen outright in the rankings.

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