Lewis Hamilton says he’s “looking forward” to the last time he drives this year’s Mercedes – or “that thing”, as he put it after qualifying in the final race of the season.
Before that, Hamilton still has the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to go on Sunday, then a final day of testing on Tuesday at the Yas Marina circuit.
Hamilton’s team-mate George Russell left Brazil last Sunday with his first career win, and Mercedes’ first of the season, to cap a steady return to form for the team which set new F1 standards in as an eight-time world champion.
But as Saturday drew to a close in the desert, it didn’t look like either Russell or Hamilton were going to be able to turn it into a second straight victory for the team.
The Mercedes drivers occupy the third row, in a two-by-two grid with Red Bull in the lead followed by Ferrari. Abu Dhabi revealed a weakness that Mercedes has had all year.
Hamilton was just 0.03 seconds ahead of Russell – but 0.684 seconds off the pace. And pretty much all of that gap to poleman Max Verstappen was on the bits of the track where the car isn’t turning.
“I certainly didn’t expect to see such a big gap,” Hamilton said, “but we lose 0.6 seconds on the straight. It’s a bit reminiscent of some of the previous races – a bit Austin. And the rebound is back, so it hasn’t been easy.
“Bouncing” – or “porpoising”, as Russell described it – has been one of Mercedes’ Achilles’ heels this year. This forced them to run the car higher than they wanted to to avoid triggering this aerodynamic feature and in doing so reduce performance. And they had to do it again this weekend.
“We still had a few porpoises in the high-speed corners,” Russell said, “and that probably helped explain why we’re further behind Red Bull than in the last two races. There were no high-speed corners in Mexico and Brazil, so it wasn’t a problem there.”
Hamilton added: “I’m looking forward to the end of Tuesday which is the last time I have to drive this thing. I never plan to drive this one again.” He laughs. “It will not be one of those that I ask to have in my contract.
“We have some support. We just need a much more efficient car and everyone in the team knows exactly what the problems are and where we went wrong so I’m pretty confident they won’t be building the next car with one of these characteristics.”
A remarkable record on the line
If Hamilton fails to win on Sunday, it will be the first time he has gone through an entire F1 season without stepping onto the top step of the podium. And that would end a unique record – so far he is the only driver to have won every season of his career.
Hamilton has been asked about it several times this season, and each time he said it was not a stat that mattered to him. And on Sunday, team principal Toto Wolff echoed that sentiment.
“He says the one win a year isn’t really a record that bothers him,” Wolff said. “If I try to put myself in his shoes, where I was before Brazil, I didn’t particularly mind if we were going to win a race this season, because all our eyes are already on next year. .
“But to win one was pretty good. At least no one could tell you didn’t win a race.
“I don’t think that particular record is important to him, but we need to provide him with a car next year in which he can fight for wins and championships. This is the most important and he knows it.”
Wolff, in a remarkably good-natured press conference, said Mercedes came to Abu Dhabi fearing an outcome like this.
“We always knew we had to be careful and not set our expectations based on Brazil,” he said. “The circuit suited our car perfectly and everything went well.”
Wolff then referenced a chart the team has that outlines how they expect this car to perform at each race.
“Abu Dhabi was one of the worst tracks on our ‘destiny table,'” he said. “Not catastrophic, but not ideal, and we saw that today.
“We’re just too trailing, and that’s not easy to solve by reducing the rear wing because it’s the aerodynamic efficiency that the car lacks. If we reduce the wing, we are not fast in the corners.
“In a way, it’s good that there is a correlation between our simulation and the result. That’s the only positive I see. Hopefully we have a strong race car that is kind to the tires even if we can’t overtake. Or defend.” “
Honor and prizes at stake
Wolff may have joked about Mercedes’ lack of ‘racing ability’, but in fact there’s a good chance they could still scare Ferrari in their race for second place in the Constructors’ Championship.
It is this and the battle between Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Red Bull’s Sergio Perez for second place in the drivers’ pursuit that are the main competitive points in the race at the end of a season where the big prizes have been long settled in favor of Verstappen and Red Bull.
Mercedes are 19 points behind Ferrari – a big margin to make up for. But while Hamilton was 0.416s slower than Leclerc over a lap, both teams’ drivers are well aware that the Ferrari tends to lag behind in terms of relative pace in races and the Mercedes ahead.
Leclerc says Ferrari worked hard this weekend on its biggest weakness, tire degradation, but it remains to be seen whether that pays off on a track where the Italian team has never won and where cornering out camber of the final sector around the luxury hotel tend to cook the tires.
“It’s top speed versus tire economy,” he said. “So we will see tomorrow if we can really take an advantage and be happier with the tyres.”
Based on that, Leclerc’s hopes of retaining second place in the Drivers’ Championship over Perez don’t look so great.
The two drivers are tied on points, Leclerc ahead in number of victories. Thus, whoever finishes ahead will take the place.
Leclerc said he was hopeful, but his teammate Carlos Sainz, fourth alongside him on the grid, did nothing.
“The Red Bulls are very tough to beat this weekend,” Sainz said. “They have 0.2-0.3secs [advantage] in qualifying and normally this gap extends into the race.
“The fight is to try to defend the P2 in the championship. I think Mercedes are going to be faster than us in the race but we will try everything to keep them behind and I think we are in a good position to do that. “
A Formula 1 great says goodbye
The race will also see F1 say goodbye to one of its greatest, as Sebastian Vettel takes part in his last grand prix before his retirement.
On Saturday, the quadruple champion organized an event during which he invited the whole paddock to run or walk on the track with him. T-shirts had been printed. And there was a good turnout.
Fittingly, he had a strong qualifying session, taking ninth place on the grid, well ahead of Aston Martin team-mate Lance Stroll.
Vettel admitted he was “a little emotional getting into the car. But once in the car, I was really thinking about qualifying. It was coming to life, I was coming to life, so it felt good.”
“It’s been a long time and it’s a funny feeling, I have to admit. But as soon as you get in the car and get out, you’re pretty busy, so that’s a good sign.
“I enjoy the most when I’m present. I had a great time and it will be another emotional day [on Sunday].”
. Grand Prix dAbu Dhabi Lewis Hamilton haste leave the frustrations of the cars in past