until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula 1

Mark Hughes on where Hamilton's Saudi Arabian GP is going wrong

by Mark Hughes
4 min read

Ferrari, having recently signed a Formula 1 driver who will be 40 years old by the time he arrives, has just watched its 18-year-old protege do a stunning late-notice stand-in job in the seat which Lewis Hamilton will occupy next year.

That Ollie Bearman’s performance in Carlos Sainz’s car happened simultaneously with a particularly difficult Saudi Arabian Grand Prix qualifying for Hamilton is just one of those awkward coincidences that motorsport throws up from time to time.

Hamilton made it into Q3 (10th fastest in Q2) and Bearman (11th fastest in Q2) did not. But the difference between them was just 0.036s – and had Bearman not gone just a little too deep into Turn 22 on his first lap, requiring him to try again on tyres past their best, their positions would have been reversed. 

It is clear that the Mercedes is in a less happy place around the fast Jeddah sweeps than the Ferrari but even allowing for that, Hamilton is finding things particularly difficult, as emphasised by his 0.16s deficit to team-mate George Russell, who has been much the quicker Mercedes driver all weekend.

In fact that final qualifying gap paints a flattering picture for Hamilton because Russell didn’t get to complete his new tyre Q3 lap after making a mistake and aborting. Hamilton on new tyres was actually 0.16s slower than Russell on old. Around here, even with a relatively low degradation rate, that tyre difference was estimated by the teams and Pirelli at around 0.2s.

That real underlying difference of around a quarter-of-a-second was actually the closest Hamilton had been to his team-mate all weekend, the difference in FP2 having been around double that.

It was a similar story here last year when Hamilton qualified 0.4s slower. He’s been quick here before – but that was back in 2021 when he sat on pole with a fully competitive Mercedes. The Mercedes of these regulations and their lack of rear stability plainly give Hamilton no confidence through the super-fast sweeps  - or at least the ones which have to be driven rather than treated as kinks. So in the whole sequence between Turns 6-10, super-fast but not flat, Hamilton felt on the verge of a major accident. Just like in ’22 and ‘23. 

“We have pretty bad bouncing which we’ve not been able to fix,” he said. “We made changes overnight and the car felt so much better in FP3 earlier today.”

Among those changes were a switch to a higher downforce rear wing than Russell. But even with the car like that, he still trailed Russell by around 0.3s. Which was better than the 0.5s of Friday, but part of the set-up change for qualifying included reverting to the original lower downforce wing.

“It felt difficult again in qualifying,” Hamilton reported. “We tried every set-up change but we just can’t get rid of the bouncing.

“I think I now have a bit of a better feeling for where the problem might be but when you’re carrying so much lateral load at such high speeds, the car’s balance shifts. At 160-170mph... That’s three years in a row it’s been like this here.”

Through Turns 6/7/8 is where he suffered the biggest loss to Max Verstappen’s Red Bull and Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari.

Verstappen was flat through there, Leclerc virtually so. But Hamilton was down to 62% throttle (Russell at 57%) and going through at 155mph compared to the 166mph of the Red Bull and Ferrari. 

But that wasn’t where Hamilton’s time loss to Russell was. George was similarly limited through that sequence, but it was in the braking zones to the tighter corners Hamilton was losing out to his team-mate.

In Turns 1, 2, 13, 15 and 22, Hamilton is earlier on the brakes but better on the exits as a result.

But Russell is gaining more on the brakes than Hamilton is gaining on the exits – to the tune of 0.16s. But that’s with Russell on used tyres, Hamilton on new.

It's clear Hamilton is just not as prepared as Russell to push the car hard in the braking zones, his confidence perhaps further damaged by having swapped between set-ups so much more as Russell simply concentrated on extracting what he had.

“We’ve got a quick car but it’s on a knife edge,” summarised team boss Toto Wolff after seeing his cars qualify seventh and eighth, with Russell over 0.8s adrift of Verstappen’s pole and 0.5s of Leclerc’s Ferrari.

“The drivers are struggling to squeeze out the laps consistently. George could have been fighting for a place on the second row but lost the rear of the car. Lewis never had the feedback from the car that he wanted.”

While eighth place, one behind his team-mate, isn’t a dream outcome for Hamilton it could so easily have been 11th and with the 18-year-old rookie putting his Ferrari through to Q3 instead.

That would have been altogether more troubling.

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