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.”

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images

Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.