Lewis Hamilton worried Mercedes lacks speed heading into F1 opener at Bahrain

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes worried
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PARIS — Lewis Hamilton believes fans will be in for an unusually pleasant surprise when the Formula One season starts next weekend, but the Mercedes superstar is worried in his quest to wrestle back the title he agonizingly lost to Max Verstappen on the last lap of the final race of 2021.

Hamilton is a seven-time F1 champion – six of them with Mercedes – but he has doubts over whether the W13 car is quick enough to win the season opener in Bahrain, and maybe even several races after that.

“I think people will be surprised. It’s a bit different this year,” the 37-year-old British driver said. “At the moment I don’t think we’ll be competing for wins.”

Hamilton insists this is not bluff or mind games, or that Mercedes is talking itself down deliberately while secretly holding something back to unleash on its rivals next Sunday in Sakhir.

“We have far bigger challenges this time and they’re not one-week turnarounds, I think it will take a little bit longer. From what I’ve been told we have a considerable amount of pace to find,” a downbeat-sounding Hamilton said as preseason testing left F1’s powerhouse team with more questions than answers. “We have some hurdles to overcome, and obviously next week we’ll get a much better showing of our pace.”

That’s not the usual fighting talk from Hamilton, F1’s record holder with 103 wins and 103 poles. He was within minutes of being F1’s most successful driver ever with eight titles, until Verstappen’s controversial victory in Abu Dhabi shredded that dream in seconds.

That was also the last race of a two-team era, dominated by Hamilton and Mercedes after Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel had enjoyed four years of joy.

But F1 wanted change, a more level playing field, more outsiders with a shot at success, less money for the big guns to keep dominating the also-rans, or the “midfield” as the humdrum term was coined.

So new regulations came in for this year.

“I think it’s one of the most exciting seasons we’ve ever embarked upon,” Hamilton said when preseason testing started three weeks ago. “Walking down the pit lane and seeing all the different cars.”

They are a bit heavier than before but overtaking could increase this season.

“They’re definitely a bit stiffer than before. I don’t mind it, the car’s quite enjoyable to drive,” Verstappen said. “It seems like it’s a little bit easier to follow cars.”

Most drivers agree with that assessment.

In a bid to increase fairer competition, budgets were cut from $145 million (132 million euros) to $140 million (127 million euros) for each team this year and will drop to $135 million (123 million euros) in 2023.

Big rivals on the track last year, when they talked like boxing heavyweights before a weigh-in, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner and his Mercedes counterpart Toto Wolff both agree it’s a serious issue.

“(You must) structure the company and organization in the right way to meet the cost cap at $140 million,” Wolff said. “Also in a high inflation environment we’re not only losing 5 million (dollars). You have to decide very carefully where you invest your dollar.”

There could be several areas to look at, then, for Mercedes.

It has struggled to adapt the car with one of the main issues being “porpoising” – another F1 term – which means an aerodynamic issue where cars hop and bounce on the track.

“We do seem a step behind our rivals, and we do have a lot of work to do between now and next week to understand,” Hamilton’s teammate George Russell said. “Because in every (racing) condition the Red Bull and Ferrari seem a step ahead of us. We’re not as competitive as we’d like.”

Verstappen hinted at that as he drove excellently on Saturday to set the fastest time in all of the testing. And, after a horrid 2020 campaign and a handful of podiums but no wins in 2021, Ferrari could be smiling again.

It’s been 15 years since Kimi Raikkonen won the title – an eternity for F1’s most famed team – but The Prancing Horse galloped well in testing and Charles Leclerc is quietly confident.

“It’s definitely one of the smoothest preparations I’ve had for a season,” he said. “No major issues.”

Leclerc showed what he could do in 2019, his first season at Ferrari, leading Hamilton 7-5 for most pole positions and then-teammate Vettel 2-1 for wins.

If Ferrari gets it right, he might have a crack at challenging his old rival Verstappen. The 24-year-olds haven’t always got on, and Leclerc said it was tense between them during their karting years.

A microscopic examination of tensions is all the rage now in F1, largely thanks to Netflix’s “Drive to Survive” which started to air its fourth season on Friday in time to spice things up on track.

It takes an inside look at F1 drivers and team officials, showing heated arguments and other incidents in the globetrotting racing series.

Not everyone’s a fan.

“I’m quite a down-to-earth guy. I just want it to be facts and just don’t hype it up,” Verstappen said. “It’s just not my thing.”

Besides, he has to focus on holding off Hamilton.

But Vettel, who successfully defended a title three times, thinks Verstappen won’t feel any extra pressure as reigning champion.

“You have the No. 1 on your car and it’s a privilege,” said Vettel, who won with Red Bull from 2010-13. “I didn’t see it as an extra burden. If anything, it was a boost, so I think he will probably feel the same.”

After New York whirlwind, Josef Newgarden makes special trip to simulator before Detroit


DETROIT – There’s no rest for the weary as an Indy 500 winner, but Josef Newgarden discovered there are plenty of extra laps.

The reigning Indy 500 champion added an extra trip Wednesday night back to Concord, N.C., for one last session on the GM Racing simulator before Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

After a 30-year run on the Belle Isle course, the race has been moved to a nine-turn, 1.7-mile layout downtown, so two extra hours on the simulator were worth it for Newgarden.

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“I really wanted to do it,” he told NBC Sports at a Thursday media luncheon. “If there’s any time that the sim is most useful, it’s in this situation when no one has ever been on a track, and we’re able to simulate it as best as we can. We want to get some seat time.

“It’s extra important coming off the Indy 500 because you’ve been out of rhythm for a road or street course-type environment, so I really wanted some laps. I was really appreciative to Chevy. There was a few guys that just came in and stayed late for me so I could get those laps before coming up here. I don’t know if it’s going to make a difference, but I feel like it’s going to help for me.”

After a whirlwind tour of New York for two days, Newgarden arrived at the simulator (which is at the GM Racing Technical Center adjacent to Hendrick Motorsports) in time for a two hour session that started at 6 p.m. Wednesday. He stayed overnight in Charlotte and then was up for an early commercial flight to Detroit, where he had more media obligations.

Newgarden joked that if he had a jet, he would have made a quick stop in Nashville, Tennessee, but a few more days away from home (where he has yet to return in weeks) is a worthy tradeoff for winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing – though the nonstop interviews can take a toll.

“It’s the hardest part of the gig for me is all this fanfare and celebration,” Newgarden said. “I love doing it because I’m so passionate about the Indy 500 and that racetrack and what that race represents. I feel honored to be able to speak about it. It’s been really natural and easy for me to enjoy it because I’ve been there for so many years.

“Speaking about this win has been almost the easiest job I’ve ever had for postrace celebrations. But it’s still for me a lot of work. I get worn out pretty easily. I’m very introverted. So to do this for three days straight, it’s been a lot.”

Though he is terrified of heights, touring the top of the Empire State Building for the first time was a major highlight (and produced the tour’s most viral moment).

“I was scared to get to the very top level,” Newgarden said. “That thing was swaying. No one else thought it was swaying. I’m pretty sure it was. I really impressed by the facility. I’d never seen it before. It’s one of those bucket list things. If you go to New York, it’s really special to do that. So to be there with the wreath and the whole setup, it just felt like an honor to be in that moment.”

Now the attention shifts to Detroit and an inaugural circuit that’s expected to be challenging. Along with a Jefferson Avenue straightaway that’s 0.9 miles long, the track has several low-speed corners and a “split” pit lane (teams will stop on both sides of a rectangular area) with a narrow exit that blends just before a 90-degree lefthand turn into Turn 1.

Newgarden thinks the track is most similar to the Music City Grand Prix in Nashville.

“It’s really hard to predict with this stuff until we actually run,” he said. “Maybe we go super smooth and have no issues. Typically when you have a new event, you’re going to have some teething issues. That’s understandable. We’ve always got to massage the event to get it where we want it, but this team has worked pretty hard. They’ve tried to get feedback constantly on what are we doing right, what do we need to look out for. They’ve done a ton of grinding to make sure this surface is in as good of shape as possible.

“There’s been no expense spared, but you can’t foresee everything. I have no idea how it’s going to race. I think typically when you look at a circuit that seems simple on paper, people tend to think it’s not going to be an exciting race, or challenging. I find the opposite always happens when we think that way. Watch it be the most exciting, chaotic, entertaining race.

Newgarden won the last two pole positions at Belle Isle’s 2.35-mile layout and hopes to continue the momentum while avoiding any post-Brickyard letdown.

“I love this is an opportunity for us to get something right quicker than anyone else,” he said. “A new track is always exciting from that standpoint. I feel I’m in a different spot. I’m pretty run down. I’m really trying to refocus and gain some energy back for tomorrow. Which I’ll have time to today, which is great.

“I don’t want that Indy 500 hangover. People always talk about it. They’ve always observed it. That doesn’t mean we have to win this weekend, but I’d like to leave here feeling like we had a really complete event, did a good job and had a solid finish leading into the summer. I want to win everywhere I go, but if we come out of here with a solid result and no mistakes, then probably everyone will be happy with it.”