Hamilton worries Mercedes lacking speed ahead of F1 opener | Sports News

By JEROME PUGMIRE, AP Auto Racing Writer

PARIS (AP) — Lewis Hamilton thinks fans will get an unusual surprise when the Formula 1 season begins next weekend and he begins his quest to reclaim the title he sorely lost to Max Verstappen on the last lap. of the final race.

Hamilton is a seven-time F1 champion – six of them with Mercedes – but he doubts the W13 car will be fast enough to win the first race in Bahrain, and possibly several races after that.

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

Hamilton insists it’s not bluffing or mind games, or that Mercedes is deliberately talking to each other while secretly holding back something to unleash on their rivals next Sunday at Sakhir.

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“We have much bigger challenges this time and it’s not one week deadlines, I think it will take a bit longer. From what I’ve been told, we have considerable pace to be found,” Hamilton told the pessimistic sound as pre-season testing left F1’s central team with more questions than answers. “We have hurdles to overcome, and obviously next week we will see our pace much better.

It’s not the usual fight talk from Hamilton, the F1 record holder with 103 wins and 103 poles. He was minutes away from being F1’s most successful driver with eight titles, until Verstappen’s controversial victory in Abu Dhabi shattered that dream in seconds.

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

But F1 wanted change, a fairer level playing field, more underdogs with a chance to succeed, less money for the big guns to continue dominating the rest, or ‘midfield’ as the term monotonous was invented.

New regulations therefore entered into force this year.

“I think this is one of the most exciting seasons we’ve ever started,” Hamilton said when pre-season testing began three weeks ago. “Walking down the pit lane and seeing all the different cars.”

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

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

Most drivers agree with this assessment.

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

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

“(You have to) structure the business and the organization in the right way to meet the cost cap at $140 million,” Wolff said. “Also, in a high inflation environment, we don’t just lose five million[dollars]. You have to decide very carefully where you invest your dollar.

So there could be several areas for Mercedes to look at.

He struggled to adapt the car, with one of the main issues being “porpoising” – another F1 term – meaning an aerodynamic problem where cars jump and bounce on the track.

“We seem to be a step behind our rivals, and we have a lot of work to do between now and next week to figure it out,” said Hamilton team-mate George Russell. “Because in all (racing) conditions, Red Bull and Ferrari seem to be ahead of us. We’re not as competitive as we would like.”

Verstappen hinted at that as he drove perfectly on Saturday to set the best time of all tests. And, after a horrible 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 famous 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 in most pole positions and then-teammate Vettel 2-1 in wins.

If Ferrari succeeds, it could struggle to challenge old rival Verstappen. The 24-year-olds haven’t always gotten along, and Leclerc said it was tense between them during their karting years.

A microscopic examination of tensions is now all the rage in F1, thanks in large part to Netflix’s ‘Drive to Survive’ which began airing 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 mishaps in the globetrotting racing series.

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

Plus, he needs to focus on holding Hamilton.

But Vettel, who has successfully defended a title three times, believes Verstappen will not feel any added pressure as the defending champion.

“You have the No.1 on your car and that’s a privilege,” said Vettel, who won with Red Bull from 2010-13. It was a boost, so I think he’ll probably feel the same way.

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