It is real – Lewis Hamilton amazed by ‘huge’ gap to Max Verstappen and Red Bull

By Sports Desk September 23, 2023

Lewis Hamilton admits he is staggered by how far Mercedes are still behind the Red Bulls after Max Verstappen blew away the field to take pole position at the Japanese Grand Prix.

Verstappen hit back in style after seeing his record 10-race winning run and Red Bull’s unbeaten season ended in Singapore a week ago by finishing a massive 0.581 seconds clear of McLaren’s Oscar Piastri.

Lando Norris was third in the second McLaren ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez.

But Mercedes struggled again, with Hamilton qualifying seventh and George Russell eighth – the seven-time world champion over a second adrift of Verstappen’s pole lap.

The Dutchman and Red Bull have dominated the sport over the last two seasons and Hamilton admits the gap that still exists between the two teams is a major concern.

“We as a team really need to when we go back and do the debrief – I hope the team already realise – but a second gap is huge. And it is real,” Hamilton said.

“To be two years in and still be a second down to the Red Bulls is not a good showing and we need to make sure we work hard over the winter to get back at least half that gap before next year.

“We have a very peaky car. It is like trying to balance a knife on its tip.

“It is never perfectly balanced, it is one way or the other. You try and get it as close as you can to the middle but it is very hard to do each weekend.”

Verstappen topped every practice session but Norris and Piastri had closed the gap in P3 to hint at a fight for pole at Suzuka.

But it never materialised thanks to Verstappen’s incredible pace on new tyres in the final session.

McLaren impressed again – especially Piastri who had never even been to Japan before this week.

“It’s been a very good day for us. A P2 and a P3 – a great job by Oscar today and as usual, by Max – but a good day,” Norris said.

“I was pretty happy with my laps. It’s a tricky circuit; not easy to put everything together but it’s so quick around here and the smallest mistake can take a big amount of lap time.

“I’m happy. It’s been a good day and good positions for tomorrow.”

Mercedes are unlikely to be in the fight with Red Bull or McLaren but are set for a scrap with Ferrari as they tussle over second position in the Constructors’ Championship – which Red Bull are almost certain to clinch on Sunday.

Leclerc delivered a strong lap for the Scuderia to line up on the second row – although he does face an investigation for exceeding the maximum lap time – while Singapore-winner Carlos Sainz starts sixth.

“I hope we can have a good battle with Ferrari tomorrow,” Hamilton said.

“They had an upgrade this weekend so they are a little bit ahead of us and it is not an easy track to overtake.

“But I am still going to give it everything and hope I can give them a run for their money tomorrow.”

Yuki Tsunoda, who was confirmed to be driving for AlphaTauri next season alongside Daniel Ricciardo, delighted his home fans by qualifying ninth.

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    Lando Norris fears Max Verstappen’s “boring” dominance of Formula One is forcing fans away.

    Verstappen became the first driver this century to start the season with five consecutive pole positions after a crushing performance in qualifying for Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix.

    The Dutchman, 26, saw off Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez by 0.322 seconds at the Shanghai International Circuit to take top spot, after he earlier raced from fourth to first in the 19-lap sprint race.

    Remarkably, since Verstappen beat Lewis Hamilton to the 2021 world championship in Abu Dhabi, the Red Bull driver has won 37 of the 48 races staged, and he is firmly on course to wrap up his fourth title in as many seasons.

    Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has already said that Verstappen will not be caught – despite there being 20 races of this record-breaking 24-race season left.

    And speaking ahead of the fifth round of the campaign in China, Norris, considered to be Verstappen’s best friend on the grid, said: “It is frustrating for people watching but it has always been like this.

    “Now, we are seeing more dominance than ever, so it is never going to be the best to watch and the only exciting races have been the ones that Max is not in.”

    Asked if he was concerned Verstappen’s stranglehold on the sport could be a turn-off for fans, Norris replied: “Of course it is going to be. Of course it is going be. There is no way you can say it won’t be.

    “If you see the same driver winning every single time without a fight then of course it does start to become boring and that is obvious.

    “You have got one of the best drivers ever in Formula One, in one of the most dominant cars and it is a combination that is deadly. If Max wasn’t there and you had two (Sergio) Perezs it wouldn’t be the case.”

    Verstappen struggled for speed in the early stages of Saturday’s sprint race but he caught, and overtook, Lewis Hamilton on the ninth lap and then pulled out an eye-watering two seconds on the Mercedes driver in just one lap. He took the chequered flag 13 sec clear.

    Fernando Alonso was the closest non-Red Bull finisher to Verstappen in qualifying but the Spaniard was almost half-a-second back.

    Norris, 24, continued: “Am I surprised how far Red Bull is ahead? No. When you know how tricky it is to get it right, then it makes sense. They are just smart people.

    “You hope teams plateau and we are starting to get there but at the same time to suddenly jump and catch them (Red Bull), it just doesn’t work like that.”

    Mercedes, behind Red Bull, Ferrari and Norris’ McLaren in the constructors’ standings, are a team far removed from the one which dominated the sport.

    Hamilton will start 18th in China on Sunday, with team-mate George Russell only eighth on the grid.

    Norris, who qualified fourth, added: “If you look at how dominant Mercedes have been in the past, you would have expected more from them. I did, especially how much over the last few years they have said: ‘ah, now we have got it’, and they never seem to.

    “We have had that, where we have hit another roadblock, so it is tricky. But they were almost more competitive last year than they are now and you just wouldn’t expect that from them. But it shows how complicated this sport can be.”

  • Lewis Hamilton insists he is ‘mentally strong’ after worst qualifying since 2017 Lewis Hamilton insists he is ‘mentally strong’ after worst qualifying since 2017

    Lewis Hamilton insisted he is “mentally very strong” after his worst qualifying in nearly seven years which was labelled a “disaster” and “unnecessary” by former rival Nico Rosberg.

    Hamilton will line up in 18th position for Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix after his troubled start to the new season took another desperate twist in Shanghai.

    Earlier on Saturday, Hamilton rolled back the years to lead the sprint race for eight laps before he had to settle for second after he was overtaken by eventual winner Max Verstappen.

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    The seven-time world champion locked up at the penultimate corner on his speediest lap, and he finished in the Q1 knockout zone, leaving only RB’s Yuki Tsunoda and Williams’ Logan Sargeant behind him on the grid.

    An exasperated Mercedes boss Toto Wolff looked to the heavens after Hamilton’s fate was confirmed.

    “Sorry guys,” reported Hamilton over the radio. He finished eight tenths off the pace and half-a-second behind George Russell in the other Mercedes.

    Hamilton last suffered such a lowly grid spot when he crashed out of qualifying in Brazil in 2017.

    “That is seriously painful,” said Rosberg, who endured a fractious relationship with Hamilton as they duelled for the title.

    The German, who eventually beat Hamilton to the championship in 2016 before retiring only days later, added in commentary for Sky Sports: “It was really unnecessary to push the limit and as a seven-time world champion that is a mistake which should be avoidable.

    “He broke three metres too late, and he had the brake balance too far forward. He lost at least four tenths which easily would have put him in Q2. That’s a disaster.”

    Aside from his strong showing in Saturday’s 19-lap dash to the chequered flag – assisted by his impressive display in Friday’s rain-hit qualifying session – this has been Hamilton’s worst-ever start to a season.

    The British driver, who is leaving Mercedes to join Ferrari next year, failed to finish inside the top six at the opening four rounds of the campaign. And his bleak result leaves him staring at another underwhelming race.

    Addressing Rosberg’s remarks, Hamilton said: “It wasn’t one of my best qualifying laps. I don’t blame anything on the team.

    “I’m very strong mentally. It’s not great, it’s not a mind-f*** at all. S*** happens, you know.

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    Mercedes are desperately out of sorts and far removed from the all-conquering team which carried Hamilton to six of his seven record-equalling titles.

    Russell will be the lead car when the lights go out for Sunday’s 57-lap race. He qualified only eighth.

    Over at Red Bull, it was business as usual as Verstappen followed up his convincing sprint win with a fifth straight pole.

    The Dutchman, who is on course to take his fourth championship in as many seasons, saw off team-mate Sergio Perez as Red Bull secured a front-row lockout. It also marked the team’s 100th pole in F1.

    Verstappen finished 0.322 seconds clear of Perez, with Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso third, half-a-second back.

    Lando Norris, who dropped from pole to finish a disappointing sixth in the sprint race, qualified fourth, one position ahead of Oscar Piastri in the other McLaren. Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz finished sixth and seventh respectively for Ferrari.

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    Lewis Hamilton’s troubled start to the new season took another desperate twist on Saturday after he qualified a lowly 18th for the Chinese Grand Prix.

    Hamilton earlier in the day had led the sprint race in Shanghai for eight laps before he had to settle for runner-up after he was overtaken by eventual winner Max Verstappen.

    But less than four hours after Hamilton’s drive to second place – a result he described as his “best in a long time” – the 39-year-old was brought crashing back down to earth when he was eliminated in the opening phase of qualifying for Sunday’s main event.

    The seven-time world champion locked up at the penultimate corner on his speediest lap, and he finished in the Q1 knockout zone, leaving only RB’s Yuki Tsunoda and Williams’ Logan Sargeant behind him on the grid.

    An exasperated Mercedes boss Toto Wolff looked to the heavens after Hamilton’s fate was confirmed.

    “Sorry guys,” reported Hamilton, 39, over the radio. He finished eight tenths off the pace and half-a-second behind George Russell in the other Mercedes.

    Aside from his strong showing in Saturday’s 19-lap dash to the chequered flag, this has been Hamilton’s worst-ever start to a season.

    The British driver, who is leaving Mercedes to join Ferrari next year, failed to finish inside the top six at the opening four rounds of the campaign. And his bleak result in qualifying here leaves him staring at another underwhelming result.

    Carlos Sainz, the man who is giving up his seat at Ferrari for Hamilton next year, brought out a red flag in Q2 after he lost control of his Ferrari.

    The Spaniard dropped his rear wheels on to the gravel on the exit of the final corner, sending him backwards into the wall on the opposing side of the track.

    Sainz broke his front wing but he was able to limp back to the pits.

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