Hamiton fears Mercedes is lagging behind 3 other F1 teams

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Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain speaks to media ahead of the Formula On Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, March 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Lewis Hamilton said Thursday his Mercedes team is so far off the pace at the start of the Formula One season that the seven-time champion needs three teams to fall out of a race just for him to have a chance to win.

Red Bull dominated the season-opener in Bahrain two weeks ago with a 1-2 finish from two-time defending world champion Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez. Fernando Alonso finished a surprising third for Aston Martin and Carlos Sainz Jr. was fourth for Ferrari.

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Hamilton was about 51 seconds behind Verstappen in fifth, while teammate George Russell finished 56 seconds back in seventh. Both finishes would have been worse had Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc's engine not failed near the end of the race.

“We’re not fighting for a (title). We need the Red Bulls not to finish the race, and the Ferraris not to finish the race and maybe now the Astons not to finish the race, for us to be winning at the moment," Hamilton said ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

“None of us at this team have ever shied away from a challenge. We would much prefer to be at the front, but it isn’t the way it is.”

Hamilton is tied with Michael Schumacher with an F1 record seven titles and is F1's winningest driver with 103 victories and 103 poles. He failed to win a race last year for the first time in his F1 career, which began in 2007.

His dread is in his belief that Red Bull wasn't even at its best in Bahrain.

“I think in the race they weren’t pushing and I think they were a lot quicker than they even seemed. We have them as a second-and-half faster in the race per lap," Hamilton said. “But I have 100% confidence in everyone. You don’t all of a sudden lose the ability to build great cars, it’s just we’re not near where we need to be and where we want to be.”

Hamilton was critical of Mercedes after the opening race, telling a BBC podcast that Mercedes didn’t listen to him about the development of this year's car.

"I’ve driven so many cars in my life. I know what a car needs. I know what a car doesn’t need. I think it’s really about accountability," Hamilton told Radio 5 Live’s Chequered Flag podcast. “It’s about owning up and saying, ‘Yeah, you know what? We didn’t listen to you. It’s not where it needs to be and we’ve got to work.'"

Hamilton was asked about those comments again on Thursday, and said he was clumsy with his criticism.

“Looking back it wasn’t necessarily the best choice of words," the 38-year-old British driver said. "Of course there are times when you’re not in agreement with certain team members, but what’s important is that we continue to communicate, we continue to pull together."

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff acknowledged in Bahrain that Mercedes made a mistake in car development after Russell won its only race last year. Mercedes struggled with the ground effect known as “ porpoising " and Russell was fourth in the 2022 standings, Hamilton was sixth.

The 2023 W14 car has very narrow bodywork, known in F1 as a “zero-sidepod” concept, but optimism didn't last long and Russell said after Bahrain that Red Bull will win every race this season.

Hamilton believes he's correct about the car's limitations based on what he'd seen in pre-season testing. He noted that the return of Mercedes to black cars overshadowed the deficiencies he saw in the unveiling.

“I knew that we weren’t in the right place. When you saw the car for the first time it looked still so much different to those that are our competitors. It’s always nerve-wracking in that moment," he said. “It looked nice, obviously the color looks nice, but I honestly don’t care what color it is as long as it’s quick. We will hopefully mould it into a winning car at some stage.”

Hamilton urged Mercedes — including himself — to step up.

“We all need a kick, we all need to get on. The proof is in the pudding, we’ve seen where the performance is and how people are extracting the performance. We’ve got to now start making some bold decisions, some big moves in order to close the gap to these guys (Red Bull),” he said. “They will run away with it most likely this year, unless Ferrari can stop them. At some point during the year we’re hopeful we might be able to close the gap, but at that point it will probably be too late in terms of fighting for a championship.”

Hamilton said he's still determined to negotiate a new contract and remains firm in his belief he can win again.

“I’ve been here a long time and I don’t plan on going somewhere else," he said. “I will win again, it’s (just) going to take some time.” ___

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