Lewis Hamilton has admitted that his Mercedes car is far from optimised with the new Formula One season just two weeks away. The world champion lost time on Saturday after a spin put him off track and he conceded that they had yet to find the car’s “sweet spot”. Mercedes have not enjoyed their usual bulletproof testing and have only one day left in Bahrain to iron out any issues.
Hamilton is attempting to claim his eighth world championship this season, having equalled Michael Schumacher’s tally of seven last year when Mercedes were utterly dominant. They won 13 of 17 races and were expected to be strong out of the box in Bahrain.
However, he is not yet comfortable with how the W12 is performing and is struggling to nail down its balance and handling. During his morning stint he uncharacteristically spun at turn 13 and went off into the gravel. His car had to be towed back to the pits and cleaned, costing him time on track.
“The rear doesn’t feel particularly great with this new regulation change and we’re trying to find the sweet spot,” Hamilton said. The change he was referring to regards the design of the floor of the car, reducing downforce, which the teams have been attempting to claw back with their new chassis.
On Friday Mercedes lost almost their entire morning session when they had to replace a gearbox because of a mechanical problem, a blow with testing reduced to just three days this year.
The team principal, Toto Wolff, warned that any further stumbling blocks would be a setback, while the engineering director, Andrew Shovlin, admitted to a “poor start” to the season and that they were “not happy with the way the car is performing” after the first day. However, Hamilton, who went on to complete 58 laps but was only eighth quickest, insisted the team were remaining calm.
“We have less mileage than some of the others so far, like the Red Bull,” he said. “We’re just trying to stick to our programme and manage the amount of laps we have. It’s day two of testing so we’re just focused on doing our job, so nowhere near [worried] at the moment. We’re just trying to understand the car. There’s no point getting worried just yet. Everyone is focusing on their programme and that’s what we are doing.”
Still, Mercedes can be pleased with their afternoon running as they demonstrated something more like the form that has seen them win the last seven constructors’ championships. Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, completed solid long runs over 58 laps in the afternoon and set the fastest time of the day.
There may yet be some concern with their engine, with Aston Martin losing track time in the morning after also suffering with a gearbox problem with their Mercedes power plant. Mercedes have yet to identify what the issue was.
There was some optimism from Ferrari about how their new car was performing. Last season they finished sixth in the championship, their worst result since 1980. They suffered with an engine down on power and a slow, draggy car. Charles Leclerc, who completed 73 laps and was sixth fastest, was cautiously pleased with the progress made over the winter.
“Everything feels quite good,” he said. “But again, it’s very difficult to comment now, nobody’s pushing everything to its limit, especially in these conditions. It’s all relative to the others: how much they improved compared to us. There are some promising signs, but we can’t know until the first qualifying.”
First practice for the opening race of the season, the Bahrain Grand Prix, takes place on 26 March.