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.”

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing

To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

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“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.

Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”