Lewis Hamilton is struggling again as Formula 1 moves onto Saudi Arabia, but his failure to make an impression in qualifying is not necessarily as bad as it looks.
The seven-time champion was only able to finish in 16th, the first time he had failed to break out of Q1 since the Brazilian Grand Prix back in 2017.
It’s fair to say, too, that Mercedes look to be facing their biggest troubles for at least half a decade.
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Since the teams first decamped to Barcelona for testing, it has been clear that Mercedes’ dominance is severely threatened. On current evidence, it is over.
They could still win this year’s championship - who knows for sure at this stage of the season? - but it appears that they are no longer impregnable.
Given last season’s controversial race finale last year, Mercedes could have considered themselves the real champions, certainly the team that produced the car that was ultimately the most competitive had normal rules been strictly applied.
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But regardless, there was a huge overhaul in regulations to come, and the normally perfectionist team of Toto Wolff, Hamilton and their engineers should have been ready. They were not.
Instead, they have been making improvements on the fly, and while last weekend did not offer great succour, it showed they were still in the points for now, and if gains could be made rapidly there was a chance for Hamilton and Russell. After Saturday’s qualifying, it is even less clear where the team are.
After all, in P3, things were not as bleak as they seem now. "It was looking good in P3," Hamilton confirmed.
But in qualifying, things were off again. The former champion could not fight his way even to the second session, with Hamilton clear that he could not control the car. Watching video replays it was obvious that on occasion he was wrestling to find the apex, but also to keep the car on the track with the concrete walls threatening to wipe out his challenge entirely.
He explained: "I tried to progress in a similar direction and maybe went a bit too far and the car was just undriveable, so nervous."
Compare that to Russell’s efforts, with his new teammate in at sixth, and still in with a shot of some success next week. He had not been a real contender for pole, but certainly there was something to build upon. For Hamilton, nothing. There are only problems. But as Hamilton was speaking after qualifying, he opened up a glimmer of hope.
We can see, thanks to Russell, that the car itself is not a disaster. Instead, Hamilton seems to have taken some confidence from his P3 showing and decided to test not just his car’s limits, but his own. It didn’t work, it backfired, and now he’ll likely finish outside of the podium this week after seeing set for the same in Bahrain. But that means there is a way to improve in the short term. It goes against his nature, but the competitive edge may need to be dulled for a week or two, perhaps longer.
On Sunday, Hamilton needs to roll back to a more conservative setting, and trust himself to make the most of his talent and fight his way through the pack. Like last week, there will be accidents and failures, if he scraps and avoids the errors, he could earn a few points. He might even end up still ahead of last year’s champion Max Verstappen.
Hamilton needs to be worried, of course, as do Mercedes. But beneath the immediate disappointment the season - and the weekend - is far from over.
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