At a meeting where he has enjoyed no little pleasure in the past, this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix looks set to be a positively painful experience for Lewis Hamilton. The seven-time champion’s frustration at his underperforming Mercedes in Melbourne was palpable as the team’s efforts to improve appeared to be futile.
Hamilton has won here twice and taken pole a record eight times, including the last six consecutive races. But in a stark change of fortune this year, he will not be threatening the front of the grid at Albert Park on Saturday.
The British driver was blunt in his assessment after second practice, where he finished in 13th, with his teammate George Russell in 11th. “Nothing we change on the car makes a difference at the moment and that is the difficult thing,” he said. “You get into the car and you are very optimistic, make changes, and then it doesn’t improve. There is just not a lot we can do.”
Since the start of the season the Mercedes has suffered from “porpoising”, a jarring on straights as the ground-effect downforce of the car is stalled at high speed. Mercedes have admitted there is no quick fix but they did not manage to bring expected upgrades to Australia, leaving them struggling to work around the problem.
Hamilton was 10th at the last round in Saudi Arabia and admitted the drivers could make little difference to the performance. “It is frustrating because you are trying to push and trying to catch and even on a decent lap I am 1.2sec down,” he said.
The frustration was clearly being felt across the team. Russell said: “We have gone left, right and center with the setup but that has resulted in a similar outcome, so we need to get on top of things.”
On this form and with the Alpines looking formidably quick, even fighting to be in the top six could be beyond the British pair as their hopes of competing for the title slip further away.
The gap to the front is a chasm, but at that sharp end Melbourne is shaping up to be another mighty clash between Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who share one victory piece. Leclerc led a one-two between them in second practice with a two-tenths advantage. They look evenly matched and having enjoyed a nip-and-tuck battle thus far, with the newly modified Albert Park circuit promising more on Sunday.
The track, where overtaking has been tricky, has been reprofiled, with various corners adjusted and the chicane at turns nine and 10 removed, allowing for a fast run down the back straight along the lake. The changes have enabled the use of four DRS zones, teeing up a potentially tactical battle similar to that which Leclerc and Verstappen fought to great effect in Saudi Arabia.
Hamilton, the sport’s biggest star for some time, may not be in the fight but the enthusiasm for the competition is undimmed in his absence. Because of the pandemic this will be the first race in Australia since 2019, and fans are relishing its return. The event is a sellout and recorded a record attendance of 112,466 on Friday with 410,000 expected over the weekend, reflecting the surge in popularity F1 is enjoying, with venues queuing up to host races.
Last week F1 announced it would hold a race in Las Vegas next year, giving the US three events in the season. With the number of meetings limited to 24 there is concern that a congested calendar could come at the expense of historic races in Europe.
Verstappen pointedly called for the sport to recognize the value of racing at certain circuits alongside the need for expansion. “We have to find a balance,” he said. “It’s just very important that we make sure we do visit proper tracks still, not only street circuits. I can definitely understand that we need a few more races in the US but we will also find it important to keep a few historic tracks which are really enjoyable to drive on the calendar.”