Hamilton’s experiments are costing him in fight against Russell at Mercedes


If you listened to or read Lewis Hamilton’s reflections on the first day of practice for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, your immediate reaction might be: ‘Okay, fair enough, that makes sense.’

“We went in different directions to try different things to try and find the right solution for the car,” is part of what he explained after suffering from a chronic lack of rear stability through the high-speed Sector 1, a problem that was plagued the W15 all weekend long.

Teams will generally give their drivers a couple of set-up options to work through in practice to see if X is better than Y, with the two converging on the best one after delving through the data on a Friday (or in Jeddah’s case, a Thursday, night) to take into Free Practice 3 ahead of qualifying.

But those comments from Hamilton could be from any number of races over the past couple of years. They seem to be coming with increasing frequency as he struggles to make the car bend to his will as it once did as George Russell does his thing, quietly and in the background.

Hamilton’s set-up woes

During his heyday of six titles in eight years between 2014 and 2021, for every 2017 Russian Grand Prix, there would be a 2018 Japanese Grand Prix.

For every ‘off race’ he would suffer when he just could not get the car in the right window, he’d turn up and blitz the field in practice leading to little doubt about how qualifying and the race would go.

At Suzuka in 2018, during Free Practice 2, he radioed into Peter Bonnington that: “This track is awesome. I’m having the best day!” The rest might as well packed up and gone home then.

Towards the end of those rules cycles with the mighty W11 and its slightly hamstrung successor in the W12, at times, it felt as if no matter what set-up Mercedes put on the car, Hamilton would find a way to drive it.

But times have changed – we are now firmly in the Max Verstappen Red Bull era and Mercedes is still scrambling to understand the rules.

In the third-year of the regulations, Red Bull had already moved onto its second car concept with the radical RB20 whilst Mercedes, and indeed Ferrari, brought cars to the 2024 season that they arguably should have started 2022 and the revolution with.

Red Bull has a two-year head-start over both teams and its has a competitive advantage, in terms of both car and driver, that is streets ahead of any other combination on the grid, but for Hamilton, a racer, a winner, that won’t do.


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Extreme set-ups

You don’t win 103 Grands Prix and seven world titles without knowing how to set-up a racing car, so it is not Hamilton has completely lost his touch.

In the early days of the ground-effects cars, when Mercedes’ porpoising was at its worst, perhaps the set-up difficulties compared to Russell were easy to understand.

It was Hamilton’s 16th F1 season, of which were in a top team, compared to Russell’s fourth and first campaign at the sharp end of the grid, so it was natural to expect that Hamilton would shoulder the heavy work-load of taking the W13 to the set-up extremes in practice to try and find something, anything whilst Russell was given the normal set-up and left to do his thing.

For all the simulation tools Mercedes had available at this time, the best instrument it had was Lewis Hamilton’s backside – a device capable of delivering the precise, detailed and complex feedback needed.

Whilst Mercedes has made good gains forward in terms of lap-time year on year since, it is nowhere near enough to begin eating into the chasm to Red Bull, even before its own improvements, and fighting for a marginal Q3 appearance or eighth place in a race, as he was with Lando Norris in Saudi Arabia, is not going to rev Hamilton up.

In its current plight, where the W15 is at best third and at worst fifth-fastest, Hamilton is again searching for any crumb of comfort in forging his own set-up path as he seeks the rear-end he craves.

Throughout his career, a planted rear-end has been a must for Hamilton, who then uses this platform to brake super-late and get through the corner making up time on the rest.

Without it, he or any driver is going to struggle and attempt different set-ups in the hope of finding the magic bullet to unlock the performance he seeks.

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