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Formula 1

Hamilton's worst-ever start to an F1 season explained

by Edd Straw
5 min read

Lewis Hamilton headed into the 2024 Formula 1 season full of optimism, but after a difficult first three races with the troublesome Mercedes W15, he now describes this as the worst start to a campaign he’s ever had.

Considering Hamilton is now in his 18th season, that’s a big claim. But it’s one that holds water given the results and problems with the car that have turned the expectations after what appeared to be a promising pre-season on their head.

“This is the worst start of the season I’ve ever had,” said Hamilton after retiring from the Australian Grand Prix, leaving him with a tally of just eight points from three races. “And it’s worse than 2009.”

Then at McLaren, Hamilton was lumbered with a car that had fallen well short of the downforce levels of leading rivals for F1’s new skinny aerodynamic regulations.

This was partly thanks to missing the loophole that made the double diffuser possible - which was exploited by pacesetting Brawn GP, as well as Williams and Toyota. The McLaren-Mercedes MP4-24 was capable only of scraping into Q2 at the start of the season and Hamilton’s title defence was over before it had really begun.

It would take a lot to eclipse that, but the results back up Hamilton’s conclusion. Statistically, this is the worst start to a Formula 1 season he has had in terms of results. Hamilton hasn’t qualified higher than eighth, while the retirement with a loss of oil pressure in Melbourne means he has scored only eight points, for seventh in Bahrain and ninth in Saudi Arabia.

This is the first time Hamilton has ever failed to claim a top-six finish across the first three races, and only the second time he hasn’t had at least one podium result in that period. And even in 2009, he stood on the podium in Australia before being excluded for lying to the stewards about the circumstances in which he passed Toyota driver Jarno Trulli under the safety car.

In 2009, he comprehensively outperformed team-mate Heikki Kovalainen in those early races but Hamilton has been outpaced by Russell in the three qualifying sessions so far this year. The average deficit is 0.143s, a small but significant disadvantage given that over the previous seasons the pair have been evenly matched on qualifying pace.

The races have not gone well either.

In Bahrain, Hamilton was unable to make progress as both Mercedes drivers had to reduce their pace to manage cooling issues.

In Saudi Arabia, he stayed out under the safety car as Mercedes split its strategy and avoided a double-stack pitstop. This turned eighth place in the early stages to ninth thanks to having to make his pitstop under green-flag conditions later in the race.

Hamilton described his race pace in Australia as “OK but not special”, but he had laid the foundations for a good result. He made an early first pitstop and was chasing Lance Stroll, who went on to finish sixth - so it’s likely Hamilton would have banked a reasonable finish in the race.

But fighting for minor points finishes is not how Hamilton envisaged the season starting.

“It’s tough on the spirit for everyone in the team when you see how so much work has gone on throughout the winter,” said Hamilton after retiring in Australia.

“You come in excited, motivated and driven. You’re with the mindset that you're going to be fighting for wins and then obviously that's not the case. And then you're like ‘OK, maybe [we’ll fight for] second or third’. No, it's not the case.

“And then then it cascades a bit further down and you just go through the motions. It's challenging but I continue to be inspired by the people I work with. They continue to put in the effort and show up. And that's the most important thing.”

On average single-lap pace, the Mercedes is only the fifth-quickest car so far in 2024. But while that means it is therefore competing in the bottom half of the top 10, Hamilton has also struggled more than team-mate Russell.

The feeling in the early stages of the season was that big steps had been made in terms of the rear-end stability that was a weakness last year.

Hamilton himself was confident, further boosted by getting a change he’d pushed for with the cockpit position moved rearwards by 10 centimetres. While he knew the Mercedes W15 wasn’t going to be challenging for race wins immediately, he characterised it as a good foundation.

“[There is] great motivation within the team and we have a better platform to work off from this year,” said Hamilton ahead of the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

What he didn’t anticipate was the return of problems that had blighted Mercedes in 2022 and ’23. There have been struggles with bouncing, rear-end instability at high-speed in Saudi Arabia in particular and the tendency for the car’s characteristics to swing unpredictability from session to session.

Australia was a good example of that where he felt the car was working well in FP3 and set the fourth-fastest time, within a tenth of a second of pacesetting Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari. Yet despite there being no significant set-up changes, he struggled badly in qualifying.

“It’s three years in a row [of a] similar feeling," he said. "Then there’s these spikes of ‘it could be good’ - then it disappears.

"If we can find a way of [keeping] that goodness in the car, making it more consistent and holding onto that, maybe we can be more competitive.”

Mercedes has pointed to problems with its simulation tools as part of the problem, as well as noting a tendency for the car to get less competitive as temperatures rise.

There’s still plenty of time to make gains with the car, and Hamilton does have a tendency to get stronger after the early races as he adapts the car to his needs, although the chances of doing anything more than perhaps fighting for a podium finish even on a good day in 2024 seem remote.

And this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka could be another difficult one given the problems Mercedes had last year with the rear end in the high-speed first sector in particular.

The big question is whether Mercedes can get on top of these problems quickly enough to make improvements to allow Hamilton to turn his worst start to a season into a fitting farewell to the team he’s enjoyed so much success with.

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